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Tabula Rasa

Shades of Violence

An Interview with Kim Newman

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#7, 1995

Kim NewmanThankfully, there are writers like Newman and Kathe Koja and Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub still around to keep everyone honest; dedicated, literate men and women whose mad talents provide the brains and the heart so lacking in the field.
Review of The Quorum
Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction
Just so there's no room for doubt, this is one of the best books ever written on the horror film.
Review of Nightmare Movies
Strangely enough, the man who is getting reviews like this also happened to co-write the wonderful Ghastly Beyond Belief and still puts out Warhammer and Dark Future novels under a well-known pseudonym. Kim Newman is a man with lots to say, but the facet that seems most obvious is his enthusiasm for it all. Certainly, his depth of knowledge and gift for the in-joke is enviable to say the least (he's even written a story for us Bewitched, uh, fan). Here follows six pages of informed and informative opinions, (and just a couple of snippets of Victoriana...)

Tabula Rasa: Right. Kim Newman, Horror Author.

Kim Newman: Yeah, I can just about live with that.

TR: What do you like about the field in which you work?

KN: I suppose it offers all kinds of opportunities to do the weird kind of stuff I like. I'm not entirely sure how comfortably I fit into horror as a genre. I started out as a critic so I know all about sub-genres... I'm not sure my books do what horror novels are supposed to do. I don't think I'm particularly scary -- although I've done some stuff like that. And yet, I really hate it when I hear people say, I know this book is about werewolf cheerleaders, but really it's about relationships. So certainly I feel I inhabit genre, just sometimes I like to rattle the bars of the cage a bit. Also I like to do these cross-generic things. Anno Dracula is a book that can go almost anywhere in the bookshop, because it's science fiction, a historic novel, and a crime novel and a political satire and a romance, though usually it's put in the horror section.

TR: That might have something to do with all the blood on the cover.

KN: Yes, yes. I still read horror, and get a lot out of it. I'm not sure if I entirely like it. I think, sometimes, what I write comes out horror and sometimes it doesn't. I've reached the point where I have to leave it up to other people to say what kind of books I do. My first couple of books were very squarely in the genres I wrote, science fiction or horror. But at about Anno Dracula I started, I suppose, finding my own voice, although it does seem to change from book to book. Certainly finding my own concerns.

TR: How did you get in?

KN: I was one of those kids who loved monster movies. Between the ages of eight and eighteen I read a lot of paperbacks, Marvel Comics, watched old Hammer films and Universal movies late at night on television, watched the cinema a lot. I suppose I came in more through films than literature -- my first book was about movies and still, my day job is film reviewer, and that pulled me in. I discovered films about Dracula before I read the book, for instance, and I think that's true of most things. My interest in film came slightly before, but certainly when I found you could get this stuff in books too, I became voracious in consuming it.

TR: Have you ever wanted to work in film?

KN: I have to say, less and less the more involved I get! I've sold options on three or four books and stories and I've even written the script of The Quorum, with no sign of anything actually happening. I know what I'm getting into, I know enough about movies to realise what a nightmare it would be -- I've spent quite a bit of time this year extraordinarily annoyed and frustrated at various aspects of the whole business. I've just got to the point where I want to work on books for a bit. If I had a better experience, and I'm sure eventually one of these projects will happen. I just get frustrated and annoyed... it's all tedious contractual stuff, nothing to do with art.

TR: I've often wondered, looking at quite a number of novels... Michael Moorcock comes to mind, Ray Bradbury... If you go through their history they have an encounter with Hollywood, and the next things they write will be biting indictments of the film world.

KN: I feel a bit in two minds about that. Also, I was interested in this stuff before I had any involvement with it. One of the ironies is that I've actually written about film and media in the broader idea of what that is. Just because I've been around the fringes of it so long, the ideas attached to it -- one of the stories I'm in a kind of dispute over is my story The Original Dr Shade, which is actually about disputes over the various rights that accrue to a fictional property, and now I'm going through it all. I think it's a cyclical thing... I knew I was getting into it. Many authors who bitch and moan the worst actually got paid huge amounts of money for it.

But I actually like the film of The Final Programme [based on Moorcock].

TR: You've written short stories and novels. Which came first?

KN: It was about the same time. I know I started the first story I sold in the same week that I wrote a long novella which became my first novel, The Night Mayor. Although I have to say, though I did all the work at that time, the novel didn't come out for eight years -- the short story didn't come out for eighteen months or two years, something like that. I don't write that many short stories, sometimes I wish I had time to do more. Sometimes the idea is a novel idea, sometimes it's a short story idea, sometimes it one of the irritating novella-length jobs that nobody will buy, because nobody takes that sort of thing... except Steve Jones, who has supported several of my unwieldy word lengths.

TR: I've just finished the collection, The Original Dr Shade...

KN: Well, there's one more. When I presented the manuscript it was much too long and so we cut it in half, and so there are two volumes of short stories. That was basically everything I had written up until seven months ago. Two paperback books... but that's still ten years of short story output.

TR: Those short stories and a brace of novels, doesn't sound too bad.

KN: Oh, I've written a lot. There was a point where I think I'd written more novels than short stories.

TR: Two phrases I've come up with from reading various things: the Peace And Love Corporation, and the Crouch End Drinking Society.

KN: Peace and Love was a company I had with a group of people. This was when all of us needed money and we wrote funny articles for pornographic magazines. The other members at various floating levels were Eugene Byrne, Stefan Jaworzyn, Phil Nutman and Neil Gaiman, who've all gone on to do various different things, they haven't sat round. But Crouch End is just me and Phil Hardy, and I don't live in Crouch End any more...

TR: Did you ever used to carry a sword cane, just by the way?

KN: Oh yes I did. I carried it as a fashion accessory. I had this period where I did a lot of work in cabaret and it was one of the props and I did get arrested carrying it around. Certainly I was guilty of everything they said I was, and no explanation was going to get me out of it.

TR: The protagonist in Anno Dracula carries one.

KN: Yeah, that's true, it's more the Victorian thing to do. I was thinking of Adam Adamant, I don't know if you've heard of this 60's British television series about a Victorian detective, I think he carried a sword stick. It fits that Prisoner of Zenda sort of thing. I wanted to have swashbuckling stuff in it, lots of fights swinging from the chandelier, that sort of thing.

TR: That's something. You research, don't you?

KN: Yeah, I suppose so. It depends which book. Certainly with Anno Dracula I did a lot of research because it was a historical novel, and you have to find out all kinds of trivial stuff about the past in order to write those. And I've just done a follow-up set in World War One, and that was another enormous amount of embracing the period. That said, the book I did in between, The Quorum, was set in places I know about the kind of people I know during the last ten, fifteen years through which I lived. I didn't have to do any research at all, I just sat there and wrote it. But you could say I've spent fifteen years researching it, by living the life. It's just what they tell you at school, write what you know. As a consequence, although that was a difficult book in some ways, it was quite easy to do the actual writing of it. It flowed quite nicely. I didn't ever have to stop to get a whole bunch of reference books to find something out -- which I did have to do with Anno Dracula and the subsequent book which I've just finished.

TR: And the stories involving the McCarthy witchhunts?

KN: Ah yeah, I did a lot of research. That's just a period which particularly interests me. I do kind of feel one should acknowledge one's sources. In that case it was something where I was writing about things I didn't know. I didn't live through that period, I don't know those people, therefore I felt I had to do a lot of reading to immerse myself... I probably over-researched that story, to be honest. Considering I read an entire shelf of books for a story that must be thirty pages long, but all that information comes in handy sometimes.

TR: Might I ask one specific question, from Anno Dracula? We had a wonderful time playing identify the reference, there was one we couldn't get! The three most dangerous men in the world, Dr Fu Manchu, Professor Moriarty and a Dr Nikola. Where's he come from?

KN: That's Guy Boothby, an Australian novelist. A Bid for Fortune and several others... they were a little like the Fu Manchu novels, and they were popular in the 1890s, about the turn of the century.

TR: And non-fiction...

KN: I do that as well.

TR: Your first book was Nightmare Movies. How did it strike you that horror reference material was needed?

KN: When I did Nightmare Movies, all the books about horror films were written, or ended, in 1968, and I got interested in horror films in the early Seventies. When I sat down to write the book, there was very, very little on that whole period. Now, in fact the shelves are clogged with in-depth studies in the works of Wes Craven or George Romero or whatever. The whole territory was there and hadn't been mapped out. Again I was in my early twenties, I was fairly ambitious about it. One thing I think is successful about the book is it provides a kind of grid for evaluating the period. It makes moves towards establishing some kind of canon, some kind of sense of the overlapping cycles of sub-genre. I tried to do the same in my book on Westerns as well, probably less successfully. At that time, it was the book I wanted to read. Nobody else had done it, but it took a while to come out in a form that I was happy with. And it was again, a book I probably over-researched, probably saw too much. Certainly I tried to be a little too inclusive -- there are whole stretches of it which feel like lists to me. But I kind of like lists.

TR: And Horror: 100 Hundred Best Books.

KN: Yeah. That was organisationally very complicated, but once that was out of the way it was quite a straightforward thing. I actually read most of the books, though not all. It was one of the projects that were interesting and, for me, good because I met a lot of interesting people I would never have, or wouldn't have run into for a while. I was very pleased by the way all these authors, with a few notable exceptions, responded positively and were willing to do these pieces essentially for nothing, though we did pay them later. That said, it's never been a particularly successful book. I think it's been remaindered by three different publishers, although it's a book people like.

It's out there. People do refer to it. There have been a couple of other books subsequently that have imitated our format, Maxim Jakubowski's Great Detectives has the same basic idea, so that was nice. There are several other projects that I've done, my book on Westerns was one, and the anthology I did with Paul McAuley, In Dreams, where critically they were really well-received, but they just didn't sell. In a sense, in all those cases I certainly didn't get underpaid, I did quite well. For instance, I've been treated much worse on other books than on those. The editors liked them, the publishers liked them, I like the covers on them, they seem to be promoted alright, they just didn't sell. You just have to live with that sometimes. I've never had anything which has gone the other was round, where everybody has said this book is a piece of crap, and it's made a fortune. I would like to think I prefer to have a good book than huge amounts of money, but I've yet to be put in that position. In fact, I've yet to write a book that everybody has hated -- I've had bad reviews and I've had books that people say are less successful. I've never had anything that was slammed by absolutely everybody who read it. I'm sure that happens, or will happen. Almost every writer eventually writes something -- and I know this from following the careers of people I admire -- they will eventually come up with some book that you like and nobody else does, and you can never explain why. There are a few of my pieces I don't really like that much, but again that comes with the territory.

TR: How easy is it for somebody to make a living as a writer in Britain?

KN: It's probably not very easy at all, though that said I'm making a good living and have done for quite a while. In my case I have two different jobs, both as a writer -- I'm a film critic and a novelist. Maybe it's because my expectations are still rooted in my years as a student or on the dole, I could actually live off being one of either of those if I had to. I've done some things... not purely for money but some things that were of low esteem and very well paid, and I used that to buy a house. So I now own the bricks over my head. I'm fairly confident of being able to feed and clothe myself, and pay the electricity bill. So those concerns no longer really trouble me, though obviously for quite a while it was a real struggle. There is no career structure being a writer, and also no guarantee you'll want to keep on doing it. I know several people maybe ten years older than I am, who've almost gone through their careers, done well and then not. There's nothing to say it won't have to be, just one of those things, and you hope it doesn't.

I'm surprised, as it is, that there are as many people out there who like what I do as there evidently are. I always think my interests are strange and limited and off to one side. People have criticised my books for having too much stuff in them -- the complicated web of historical and interfictional references all add up, and on one level I entirely agree with them, it seems to me a bit childish really, but I also know a lot of people respond enormously to that, really like that side of it, and I do like doing it. It's a decision you have to make. On some level it limits the audience you're going to get. I'm never going to have the huge readership that Steve King or Clive Barker gets -- though King is, in fact, a very layered and detailed writer. He tends to embrace this kind of vast morass of American popular culture that he assumes the rest of the world shares, and so far his sales indicate that that is so. Whereas Clive, for instance, is deliberately taking all that stuff out of his works. The Thief of Always deliberately isn't set anywhere, it could be Britain or it could be America or whatever. I think that actually hurts the book, the fact it's set in some kind of nebulous non-nation, and a fantasy world as well, I think doesn't make it work. Certainly C. S. Lewis, or Alice in Wonderland or whatever, they need to be rooted, Kansas/Oz, all that kind of stuff. I feel that's important. Certainly that was a deliberate decision on Clive's part and I suspect commercially a very canny one. It's one I cannot do, I cannot write that kind of generalised stuff. I need to know what's in my character's record collection, or their fridges, the furniture of the lives of the people I write about. This is equally true if I'm writing about, as in The Quorum, people living in 1990s Britain, or as it is in Anno Dracula or The Bloody Red Baron, writing about people living in alternative historical period overrun by vampires.

TR: And you made Clive Barker into a book...

KN: Oh that, yeah, [The Man Who Collected Barker]. I wasn't actually picking on Clive so much as this kind of silly mania... the creation of bizarre artefacts as books. The basic thing was that to my mind books are there to be read, that's it. Some of them are real nice objects, and I have a lot of nice books on my shelf, but the idea of spending a couple of hundred dollars on a hand-embossed goat skin version of some book that I've already got the paperback of strikes me as being rather sad. Collecting anything is an odd impulse, and I admit I do it, I collect books, collect videotapes, collect the experience of having read books, of seen films, which is just a level difference. To me it's important to have read or seen, rather than to own, although I obviously like to own the book or film as well. Maybe I was dealing with something I recognised as being part of myself. Clive said he thought it was quite funny.

TR: What do you think is needed in horror today?

KN: Good writing. I mean, that's really pathetic, isn't it? But it is true. There's a lot of people out there and that's a shame, but there's always a ground swell of the bad stuff. In some sense I'm not sure horror needs anything more than it's getting. It strikes me there is already enough extraordinarily gifted writers working in the field. It doesn't particularly bother me that some authors are going on about how they never get no respect, they don't get reviewed or whatever. Actually I think that's not true, I think horror is quite widely reviewed -- every time I have a book out there the publishers send me a sheet of reviews from all over the place. It seems to me that the feedback is quite good. There is some quite sharp writing out there. Without naming names, I do feel some writers just bitch and moan about it, they'll never be happy, and I kind of resent it when I read writers saying critics ignore us, or treat us badly, or spend all there time crawling all over Anthony Burgess or Martin Amis or whoever, to the exclusion of me, that just sounds like bitching and whining and sour grapes. Because then they always say it doesn't matter what critics say, it's what the readers say that really matters. The fact that they harp on endlessly about these real or imagined slights they've received at the hands of the popular press, it does suggest to me that, as with a character in my book The Quorum, there are people who wake up in the middle of the night worried that some local paper had given them a bad review. That said, I don't like getting bad reviews, I don't know anybody who does.

TR: One thing the genre is getting at the moment is the 'violence in entertainment' catchcry. Do you feel there is any pressure on that issue?

KN: I haven't felt any, but then again I think in some ways my work has been getting less violent. It's hard to tell, for instance, The Quorum was deliberately written as a book in which nobody died. That was one of the things I wanted to do a horror novel without using. I suppose Anno Dracula was a fairly violent novel, but no more violent than most cop thrillers are. I deliberately stayed away from describing the Jack the Ripper murders, not from any particular squeamishness, just I felt it had been done before, it was boring, we didn't need to carve up a whole new bunch of people -- it would just a created gratuitous dollops throughout the book. There's a lot of violent, strange and transformational imagery in it, and the subsequent book about World War One is of course enormously violent -- it's about a situation in which millions of people are being killed. It's hard not to be violent. I also have to say I don't really have any problems with violence as entertainment. Rather, with fictional representations of violence, I can tell the difference between that and genuine violence. I'm much more concerned or upset with the idea of boxing or bullfighting than I am with the idea of watching thriller killer movies.

I do have some sense in my own work that I don't particularly want to be really violent at the moment. Only because I feel I did that. In my third novel Jago in which I tried to do a big thick Stephen King type horror novel, I just felt I wrote as many murders as I wanted. Having done that, I just want to go on and do something else. I got interested in other kinds, emotional violence, spiritual violence, the other kinds of agony and torment that are going on.

Kim Newman Bibliography

Nightmare Movies: A Critical History of the Horror Film Since 1968, 1988 (1985).
Ghastly Beyond Belief: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of Quotations, ed. with Neil Gaiman, 1985.
Horror: The 100 Best Books, ed. with Stephen Jones, 1988.
The Night Mayor, 1989
Wild West Movies, or How The West Was Found, Won, Lost, Lied About. 1990.
Bad Dreams, 1990
Jago, 1991.
Anno Dracula, 1992.
In Dreams, ed. with Paul J. McAuley.
The Quorum, 1994
The Original Doctor Shade, and Other Stories, short stories, 1994.

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