Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Dryburn Hospital, Durham. I grew up three miles away in a suburb of the city.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Any particular formative influences?
We had all sorts of books, but especially a lot of fiction. From a young age I enjoyed Roald Dahl, the anthologies of suspense stories that Hitchcock put his name to, Stephen King novels, a lot of works that bridge the gap between adolescence and young adulthood – Dracula, Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn – but also a lot of female-orientated books too, especially by Judy Blume. I read all of her work, which of course went down with the lads in the north-east in the 1980s.
That was all probably under the age of twelve, at which point I got heavily into comics, particularly the counter-cultural underground, stuff like Robert Crumb and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Then I delved headlong into fiction: George Orwell, Laurie Lee, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Harry Crews. Given that the average household in the UK purchases 1 or 2 books per year, I was very lucky to have access to the written word at all.
Why do you write?
Writing can be a form of alchemy, I think. With only 26 letters continually being arranged in new configurations a writer can build entire universes; evoke fear, desire, nausea. If you want to look into at deeper level, it could be seen as an occultist (in the traditional sense) practice, a form of magic. The same for some music too. How else can you explain the ability to physically impact on someone at the other side of the world? My head seems to be full of stories that I want to expel and there is nothing else I would rather be doing. When I am not writing I’m thinking about when I can write next.
Your advice to new writers just starting out?
I’d say you they would be wise to divorce the creative process from the financial one as soon as possible. Expect to live in penury as you probably won’t make any money; once that is realised you should liberated enough to create. Read as much as possible too. Read everything, especially poetry. You almost certainly won’t publish the first novel that you write so never give up. A true writer writes regardless. When I was 22 I went to Hanif Kureishi’s house to interview him, and happened to mention that I was struggling to find the time to write. He just shrugged and said: “Get up earlier.”
How do you choose your subjects?
My books are generally an amalgamation of things I am interested in at any given time, and often follow recurring themes such as corruption, human nature, power, survival, alienation, often with the landscape of the north of England taking a central role. I’m very faddish so some things that I was into five years ago may be of little interest to me now. The landscape aspect is a constant though, and though my work has been described as very bleak I hope that there is moral code there. Sometimes you have to show the worst of people to show the best of people too.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
I don’t see the two things as being separate, really – the writing itself is part of the research process and vice-versa. I sort of slip into subjects, or am surprised to discover I am writing about something that I never intended to. Also, ending a book is much harder than beginning one. I don’t think you ever actually finish writing a book, instead you just stop in anger, exhaustion, doubt and disgust and then walk away.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I’m proud of the occasional sentence here or there, but for the most part I’m embarrassed by it all.
When you look back at the books you have written, is there a favourite?
My books are my children, and they are all ugly bastards. When I think of my novel Beastings (2014) though, I know it was chiseled down over many, many rewrites and was about as good as I could possibly make it at that time. There is a tension there. A feel to it. My latest book, The Gallows Pole, is certainly the most expansive and involved the highest level of research, so perhaps I’d choose that one. It was the most enjoyable to write, because a lot of it was done on foot: wandering, exploring, seeing and connecting with the past in the small Pennine town in which I live. Also I very much like the book cover, though of course I didn’t design it. I’m a strong believer that you should always judge a book by its cover. But not people.
Do you write every day; what is your writing process? Do you do many drafts?
I write almost every day, at least 5 or 6 days per week, usually somewhere between 9am or 10am, and 6pm, though that is not rigid, and I take lots of breaks to do other things, like wandering about and talking to people. Walking and chopping wood are good things to do. They are rhythmic. I like to go and swim in reservoirs and rivers too. As well as fiction I write album and book reviews for magazines, articles, poems, copy for companies. Each book usually goes through five or six drafts over the course of two years or so. But then it might go through a year or two of limbo, either being rejected by publishers, or sitting in a schedule for publication. The writing is the enjoyable part.
Your views on book publishing?
As I writer I wholeheartedly encourage the publishing of books.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I’ve never read one, which isn’t to say that I’m against them.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life?
I often imagine what it must have been like for someone like Dickens to write so prolifically with a blunt nib, ink and blotter, or even more recently those who used typewriters. Computers enable the writer to be so much more productive, especially during the editing process. I’m all for technology. Computers are great, and any civilization should take advantage of the latest tool that they have to hand, though it goes without saying that most printers should be sledgehammered to smithereens for all the stress that they cause. Also I’m not impressed by the more tawdry aspects of gadgetry and technology – that which infantilises adults, basically. To me, phones and computers are just tools. I’m not interested in playing Candy Crush Saga, but thanks for the invite anyway.
Your views on social media?
It’s all a crock of shit; I’m on there every day, just another hypocritical bastard rasping into the digital abyss.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
My latest novel is set in West Yorkshire in 1770, around where I live, so I’d be interested to step back and see how accurate a portrait I created – if at all. Or maybe I’d hop back to a century before that, when the wealthy would wear two-foot tall wigs, tight trousers and white powder paint. I think it’s good look that will make a comeback at some point; the New Romantics came quite close. Also I like English country houses.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Emperor Claudius. Sylvia Plath. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Noel Coward. Serena Williams.
Which characters in history do you like the most?
I suppose I tend to like the losers and the underdogs. I quite like the kid who throws a rock at the Roman Centurion’s helmet, and whose story is not yet told. That’s where fiction comes in.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
‘Heroes’ is a strange concept, because people are people, and therefore deeply flawed. I love the work of the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun – it’s moving, sometimes hilarious, and gave birth to modernism – but he became a supporter of fascism late in life when his mind was going, so there goes any thoughts of hero worship. Arturo Bandini from Ask The Dust by John Fante is an archetypal antihero, and perhaps it is these people who I find more interesting. I thought that Prince Naseem Hamed was heroic during his boxing career – a young man who seemed incapable of doubt, was supremely athletic, an apologetic (and under-rated) ambassador for people of colour, and was the best rock star of the 1990s. Also at 70 years Iggy Pop is about as Godlike as a human can be for me. Seeing footage of him perform when I was about 14 opened up a whole new world for me. My Grandpa Ronnie Myers is a hero too. He’s 102. I don’t know . . .
Your favourite joke?
I’m afraid I don’t know any. I tend to prefer characters or situations – Larry David, Alan Partridge or Louis CK – rather than ‘gags’.
Your chief characteristic and your chief fault?
I like to think that I have a sense of humour, but on the downside I do sweat a lot.
Your bedside reading?
I’ve got about sixty books by my bed at the moment. It’s getting ridiculous – and structurally dangerous. Today I am reading Cage of Shadows by Archie Hill, published by Tangerine Press, The World–Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry and an English book from the 1970s about hunting rabbits and ratting with terriers.
Your views on success?
I genuinely think that there must be few things worse than being very famous. Recognisably so, I mean. As a journalist I’ve interviewed hundreds of famous people though, and it’s a bit of a mirage really, a false promise. Sometimes a cage. Sometimes toxic. But fame is very different to success, which I would define as setting out to do something and doing it, and also being free and relatively happy in life. Success is not needing an alarm clock.
Don’t be a prick.
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The Gallows Pole, Beastings and Pig Iron are published by Bluemoose Books.