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A Conversation with Conrad Williams
An interview with Jeff VanderMeer
January 2006

© Conrad Williams
Conrad Williams
Conrad Williams
Conrad Williams was born in Warrington in 1969. After his A-levels he worked for a year as a trainee journalist before taking degrees at Bristol and Lancaster. He spent ten years in London where he worked as a freelance journalist. He has sold around 80 short stories to a diverse range of anthologies and magazines. He is the author of the novels Head Injuries (optioned by Revolution Films) and London Revenant, the novellas Nearly People and Game and Use Once, then Destroy, a collection of his best short fiction from the past ten years. He is a past recipient of the British Fantasy Award and the Littlewood Arc prize. He lives with his wife, the writer Rhonda Carrier, and their sons.

Conrad Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Nearly People

Head Injuries
London Revenant
Use Once, Then Destroy
Nearly People

Conrad Williams has come to the attention of a wider audience by dint of two fascinating books: Use Once, Then Destroy, a short story collection, and London Revenant, a surreal, horrific novel set in an often transformed London. Both books were published by Night Shade, with a third forthcoming from Earthling Publications. Williams' fiction shares attributes with the work of M. John Harrison and other writers who often use contemporary settings but then transform them or show the mysterious nature behind their seemingly ordinary facades. Williams' characters tend to be ordinary people caught up in fractured or difficult relationships, with a backdrop of the horrific or the somewhat fantastical. All of his work is challenging and passionate. As a prose stylist, Williams is one of the most interesting new writers to emerge in recent years. I interviewed him via email in December 2005 and January 2006.

Where do you think the darkness in your work comes from?

I'm not sure. I've always been seduced by good, dark, atmospheric fiction. I like the frisson that can be found in horror fiction, and the best writers understand that. I think, in my own work, the recourse to grim reality is a way of exploring how characters react to extreme situations. It can also create a hell of a mood, too.

What do you most fear?
I worry myself sick about my two young boys. Ripley is 18 months old, Ethan had his third birthday in September. I constantly envisage terrible things happening to them, and as a result I'm ultra-cautious to the verge of wanting to clad them in bubblewrap before we go out. Stray dogs. Air crashes. Becoming disabled to the point of needing 24-hour care... Cheerful stuff like that.

How do you write your way into a piece of fiction?
I'm happiest when I have a title first. I have a folder on my Mac that contains something in the region of 150 titles, stretching as far back as 1995. I love story titles. I'd buy an anthology containing just titles. Sometimes I'll think of a last line, as with a story I wrote called "Bloodlines," for a collection of millennial horror stories concerning Dracula. I had this: "He covered her mouth with what passed for his own," which I quite liked. The rest of the story stemmed from that. But that's rare for me. I react very strongly to words or phrases and find I can build a story quickly from something I read in the newspaper or even a word in the dictionary. My most recent story, "Perhaps the Last," came about that way after I discovered a fact about a rare disease while flicking through an edition of The Guinness Book of Records.

How easily does writing come to you, and how do you revise?
Writing comes pretty easily to me. The ideas are a different matter. I'm not really a plot machine. I love the writing side of things more than the structuring of story. Which probably shows. I'm probably more of a writer than a storyteller, which might be what is working against me in terms of finding publishers. Or maybe I'm neither of those, and more a "prose stylist" -- which is what you referred to me as recently... I'm extremely grateful for the compliment, but I doubt it will please my agent...

I feel a little guilty in that I rarely do more than a polish on any first draft. Again, probably to my detriment, but I worry that getting involved in twenty drafts of something will kill the magic of creativity for me.

Have the events of the last couple of years -- terrorism, etc. -- changed how you think about your writing?
I worry if what I'm writing is relevant. But then I've always worried about that. Horror fiction has always been talked of as a way of coping with real atrocities, a safety valve where you can kick back and enjoy somebody's romp about lung-guzzling monsters on motorbikes because it's kind of cartoon terrorism. It might thrill you, disturb you, scare you but it's not real. It's comforting, in a way. 9/11 and 7/7 (especially 7/7 -- we live in a flat that's a minute's walk from Edgware Road tube station) gave me a jolt because it brought home how random death can be. You cannot legislate for it. I was surprised by how many novelists used 9/11 either directly or indirectly in their work, not long after the event. It's such a defining moment that of course writers are going to reference it to a greater or lesser degree. But for me, it's almost too big a thing to work with. It overshadows everything.

What do you see as recurring themes in your work?
I was mildly shocked to find, when I flicked through the collection, Use Once, then Destroy, to discover how many stories end with an absolutely appalling death. I know they're horror stories, and that's kind of the point, but it was still something of a surprise. Other than that, the decay of relationships, urban deterioration (a strong UK trope, this: blame Ramsey Campbell), loneliness...

How much has noir fiction influenced your prose?
Not by a huge amount, although I do enjoy it. I read all the Raymond Chandler I could get my hands on, and have read some Charles Willeford, Mickey Spillane, Dave Goodis and Dashiel Hammett, but I prefer the harder, more English school of writing. Everybody has a gun in US fiction. Somehow, for someone to have a gun in UK fiction gives it a power, an edge. Maybe it's because I'm English, but I just feel it's more real, less playful. I liked Scott Phillips's The Ice Harvest and I'm a fan of James Lee Burke.

What has Derek Raymond meant to you and your writing?
Raymond has been a huge influence on me. He showed me that writing about bleak things didn't necessarily mean that your audience wouldn't follow you. In his Factory novels, he plumbed the depths of human awfulness, yet the stories were redeemed by his anonymous hero's pure moral drive. The Detective Sergeant was a foul-mouthed, impudent wreck of a man, but he defended victims, especially female victims, to the hilt. Those five books, and also his last novel, Not Till the Red Fog Rises, have pride of place on my bookshelves. I only wish they were more readily available. His autobiography, The Hidden Files, is also essential reading.

How would you describe the difference between American and British fiction?
I always see American and British fiction as echoes of the physicality of those two countries. America: expansive, fearless, perhaps a little hubristic... Britain: insular, cold, punching above its weight, unsure of its identity... I like some American fiction. I like Hemingway. I like Raymond Carver. I like John Updike's short stories. I studied modern American fiction as part of my degree course. I remember liking Willa Cather, Walden, some Saul Bellow. I just think that a lot of American fiction is pretty woolly, and could benefit from a hearty pruning. Mike Smith keeps pushing American books my way: Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Lennon... I don't want to read big American novels. I'd rather read an intense little book such as Safelight by Shannon Burke. That's my idea of a great American novel. Not endless swathes of weight-lifting and bears, thank you very much John Irving.

What writers have influenced you?
Graham Greene for his economy and ability to nail a feeling or a mood in a few words, M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Peter Straub, early Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Patrick McGrath...

Do movies influence you at all?
Yes. I've been told I write in a cinematic way. And I love films. Chinatown is probably my all-time favourite. Genre-wise I love The Shining, The Haunting, Les Diaboliques, Night of the Demon, King Kong, Don't Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Omen... there are also a lot of Japanese horror films around at the moment that are scary as hell. Stanley Kubrick is probably my favourite director. I also like Michael Mann, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola (in the 70s), Alfred Hitchcock... favourite actors: Jack Nicholson, Robert de Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Ed Harris, Christopher Walken... I've always liked British actors too. Solid, dependable actors like Tom Bell, Daniel Craig, Christopher Ecclestone, Pete Postlethwaite (who hails from my home town).

Have you ever thought about writing for film?
I have. Head Injuries was optioned by Revolution Films (Michael Winterbottom's production company, responsible for such films as Jude, Welcome to Sarajevo, 9 Songs, etc.). I was contracted to write a couple of drafts of the screenplay and I have my copy of Variety with my name in there, on the "In Development" pages. It didn't work out, but it was a great experience. One thing I learnt was that film people might buy your book but they don't necessarily want the same story. I ended up writing a brand new narrative that had nothing to do with the original novel.

Regarding writing on spec scripts, it's something I'm noodling with, but I don't think I'll treat it with any seriousness unless somebody offers me insane money. I'd rather write a story, or a novel and get it published than spend time on a script that more often than not will just end up, at best, in development hell.

What music inspires you? Do you listen to music while writing? If so, what do you listen to?
I do listen to music when writing, and nine times out of ten it will be without lyrics because songs tend to distract me. But if I'm in the zone I can listen to anything. My wife bought me the latest Coldplay album for Christmas and there's a track on it called "Speed of Sound" which raises the hairs on the back of my neck every time I hear it. It really gets to me. There must be a secret chord that chimes with some Conrad chemical and knocks me sideways. I love Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Beck, The Smiths, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Kristin Hersh, Cocteau Twins. And Paul Schütze, Harold Budd, Four Tet, John Surman and Vangelis work for me in terms of lyric-less music.

What do you read these days?
I tend to read non-fiction when I'm in the middle of writing a novel. When I'm reading fiction, it tends to be away from the genre in which I write. I keep up with the likes of Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell, Joel Lane, but I veer towards literary thrillers on the whole: Rupert Thomson's recent work, especially The Insult and The Book of Revelation were a class apart. Although I dip into horror and fantasy, I steer clear unless it's something I'm attracted to, something that's going in a strange direction (Miéville's King Rat, Kelly Link's stories, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, for example).

Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
I prefer writing short stories, because I know how to do it. Novels are still frightening for me, despite having written six since I was 21. I don't think I'm the only writer who frets over books like that. I want to be a novelist and aim to write a novel every year, but I think it's one of those things that take time and practise to master. I'd like to think I'm producing good work now, but that I'll really hit my stride in another ten years or so.

What makes you most irritable when reading a novel?
Adverbs. Sloppy writing. Unrealistic characters. Clichés. Life's too short. I picked up a copy of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to see what all the fuss was about and threw it across the room before I'd read twenty pages. If that's the kind of shit you have to stoop to in order to become a bestselling author, then bring on obscurity...

Are you religious or brought up religious?
I'm not religious. I wasn't brought up religious. I wasn't christened or baptised or anything like that. From a very early age I remember thinking, I can't swallow this, this is nonsense. I'm a practising atheist. I understand why some people are religious, and I won't knock them for it. If it's a comfort, if it helps, then I couldn't be happier. I just find all the pomp and ceremony sticks in the craw. I don't like the vast wealth the church lays claim to, the blood that is spilled in its name, the "believe in me and spend eternity in paradise... or burn in hell" crap. That said, I watched my boys being born, I look at the stars in the sky, or the minuscule veins in a leaf, the insect that disguises itself as bird shit to avoid being eaten, and I can't help thinking there's some kind of inexplicable pattern behind it all.

How long did it take to write London Revenant?
The first draft of London Revenant was begun the day after my first London girlfriend dumped me, in March 1995. It was a pretty sour little dig at her. It took me about a year and a half to finish it. At that point, there was no strand involving Meddie, Iain and Yoyo. I'd written a short story the year before I started the novel, which was called The Pocket, which was about an oasis in the middle of London, unmapped, that my character stumbles upon. The idea was that people who weren't invited into it, who had bad intentions, caused it to deteriorate, to rot. I thought that would be a strong strand to introduce to the novel, to give it a fresh aspect and to provide a real-time structure in which to reflect Adam's character. There are other short stories I cannibalised to season the book. I like the idea of recycling old material, especially if it originally had a tiny audience, in a novel, if it works, and isn't just there to pad out the word count. Mike Harrison does this frequently. He refers to some of his short stories as being dry runs for longer works.

I set about a revamped version of the book in 2003. By this time The Do-Not Press said they wanted to publish it, so I had an added incentive to get it done. In all, by the time it got to the bookshops, it was a nine-year process. London Revenant was the first title I had, but for a while it was called Inner City. I like that title, but my wife reckoned it would make the book sound like some kind of government tract, so I reverted to the original.

How personal is London Revenant to you, in terms of the characters and more realistic events in it?
London Revenant is dear to me, because for a long time I thought it would never be published. Head Injuries came out in 1998 when I was 28. I was convinced that was my break into publishing, that I could build on that and become a real force in literature. But The Do-Not Press couldn't afford to do London Revenant straight away. I had a lot of nice rejection letters from the big publishing houses. Suddenly a couple of years had gone by and I was sitting on a cold book. I'm grateful to Jim Driver at The Do-Not Press for reviving his interest in the book, and for bringing out such a great edition, but I doubt we'll work together again -- he's struggling to make money and hasn't published a new book in the last twelve months.

In terms of content, Adam's feeling for the city is pretty much how I feel. Very much love-hate. I've lived in London since 1994, give or take the odd six months here and there, and whenever I leave I feel happy and when I come back I feel bad, but once I've been here for a while, I love the place. I love its second hand book shops, its cafés, its parks, its history. No city I've ever been to lifts the hair on the back of my neck as much as London when I see it from Waterloo Bridge. It's a stunning place, but it's also incredibly insular. The novel was my Valentine and Dear John to the city at the same time. It's an important bookmark in my life and says a lot about where my head and my heart were during the mid-90s, when I first arrived in the big city, and took up residence at 7 Sevington Street, Maida Vale. It's quite personal in that way. It also reflects how fragmented my involvement with the city is. I hope that sense of instability and edginess comes through. In my ten years here, I've probably moved house around fifteen times, and that includes buying a flat in Stamford Hill, where I lived for four years...

The characters aren't based on anybody in particular. Now I think that Yoyo, Iain and Meddie are manifestations of London's different faces. Friendly, beastly, carnal...

It's also dear to me because its publication date, May 27th 2004, was the day my second son, Ripley, was born.

What is it about London that you most love? And would you describe your relationship with the city as affectionate or a love-hate relationship?
Things I love about London? The South Bank. The view from Waterloo Bridge. Doing some work at the British Library. Seeing a dead underground platform flash by while travelling on the tube. Stoke Newington Church Street, the Jai Krishna restaurant on Stroud Green Road, beers with Michael Marshall Smith in Soho, Paddington Gardens, my boys' favourite playground, Second hand bookshops on Bell Street, being able to stand next to the building on Poland Street that Derek Raymond envisioned as A14's base in his Factory novels. Being able to nip for a drink at the Globe pub where Hitchcock filmed some of his scenes for Frenzy.

It's definitely a love-hate relationship. I love the tube, its history. The fact that it was the first of its kind. I hate how shit it is. How hot in the summer. How dirty. The British tend to break ground, to trend set, and then become the worst practitioners. Summer in the city is evil. I've developed what I call August asthma. I need an inhaler with me every day in August, otherwise I become a wheezing wreck. I don't like the indifference bordering on hostility you find in strangers. I don't like how our street is used as a high speed rat run by taxi cabs. I don't like 3+ pints.

If you didn't live in London, where would you live?
I spent a month in Australia in 2000 and fell in love with the place. I could quite happily live in Sydney or Perth. Other than that I've always had a thing about New York even though I've never been there. We have a crumbling old farmhouse in south-west France which is great, but doesn't have an indoor toilet or heating... needs a lot of work. We're in the process of selling our London flat and will probably move up to Manchester, so look out for a glut of stories set in the north-west of England...

Have other places crept into your fiction? If so, where?
Morecambe was the setting for Head Injuries. I wrote it while I was living there during the winter of 1993. I was taking an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and the bleakness of that novel was down to the utter lack of character in what must be one of the grimmest towns on Earth. If you ever get the opportunity to go to Morecambe, grasp it with both hands and then strangle it till it dies. Don't go. Just don't.

What are you currently working on?
I've got a novella called The Scalding Rooms coming out with PS Publishing later this year. It's a sequel to Nearly People and is set mainly in an abattoir. I'm also on the finishing straight of a novel called The Unblemished which is due to be released from Earthling Publications this coming Halloween. It's my attempt at writing one of those big 1970s horror novels. It's got monsters in it. I've got to deliver that by the end of February... so I'd best get back to it.

Copyright © 2006 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?.

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