|London in the Blood:|
An Interview with Christopher Fowler
|Interview by David Mathew|
By the end of my interview with Christopher Fowler, I had formed some strong opinions, all of them positive. He was charming,
intelligent, soft-spoken, and obviously a hard worker, as shall be made clear below. Given these attributes, I find it odd
that I had become obsessed with the size of his bank balance. Interviewing, in accordance with any profession, has
its share of compromises, most of them based on intuition at the time: I can ask him this, but I probably shouldn't ask
this -- now that I know a little bit about him. But the question I wanted to pose throughout was: "Chris, tell me... How
much money have you actually got?"
Perhaps it was because Fowler's first statement was connected to the subject of making cash:"When I was very young, writing was a good way of fiddling extra pocket money," he said. "I used to write to Letters Pages that paid £5 for the Star Letter. Basically, I examined the writing style of people who had won and I imitated their writing style."
Or perhaps my fascination was because Fowler confessed his weakness for mathematics, and I felt that I had to compensate
by presenting myself with a mathematical problem.
"I was utterly uninterested in anything remotely mathematical, and I think in my Maths O Level I got 4%,"
This poor performance has not affected him much. Christopher Fowler is obviously a very wealthy man. I met him in
London's Soho, an expensive area of restaurants, sex shops and bona fide film-connected businesses. Fowler is the director
of a film production company -- one of the largest in Europe -- and employs fourteen members of staff (
He is also more than a decade into a successful writing career, which to date has included such novels as
Roofworld, Red Bride, Spanky and Psychoville; and short story collections such
as The Bureau of Lost Souls, Sharper Knives,
and Uncut, the most recent,
This poor performance has not affected him much. Christopher Fowler is obviously a very wealthy man. I met him in London's Soho, an expensive area of restaurants, sex shops and bona fide film-connected businesses. Fowler is the director of a film production company -- one of the largest in Europe -- and employs fourteen members of staff ("all of them tragically film obsessed" ), and will possibly employ a few more by the time these words are read. Certainly there seemed to be no lack of activity on the day I met the boss. For the first twenty minutes of the interview his telephone chirruped, every forty seconds or so, and Fowler was obliged to say things like, "No, I'm in Cannes that day." Or: "The Coen Brothers." At no point did he seem flustered, which gave the impression that this was routine. He lives a few minutes' walk from the building, and -- if the point needs to be laboured -- a few minutes' walk in any direction from Soho, and we're not talking about a shanty town...
He is also more than a decade into a successful writing career, which to date has included such novels as Roofworld, Red Bride, Spanky and Psychoville; and short story collections such as The Bureau of Lost Souls, Sharper Knives, and Uncut, the most recent,"a retrospective collection containing several new stories... I do a book a year and a book of short stories every other year; it does me nicely... The beauty of short stories is the luxury of experimentation. Short stories are like barnacles, and they attach themselves to me. The odd commission comes in from here or there, and then suddenly there's a book ready. I've been very lucky with the stories: I'm one of the few authors who gets to publish collections, given that collections don't sell as well as novels. My stuff tends to make the money back." But how does he find the time? he is often asked. "Everybody here is extremely understanding, and the hours are rather flexible. That's one thing... I sometimes book some holiday time from the company, just to be on my own to write. But after the third day of sitting in my dressing-gown at four o'clock in the afternoon, having struck up an unnaturally complex conversation with the milkman, I think: Christ, I've got to get out more."
How did it all begin?
"I was a massive horror, fantasy and science fiction fan; and when I was young, people still read a lot of books. Going to school, people would be talking about James Bond books, as opposed to films. Talking about the fact that his testicles get beaten on in Casino Royale! Which, nowadays, sounds like something out of a cheap gay porn mag; but at the time was deeply shocking. I read Tolkien and Gormenghast at fifteen, then I was ready for Ballard, and for the Pan Book of Horror Stories.
"I had one fantastic piece of advice at school, and only one, and it was: nobody loves a good all-rounder. Be fantastically good at one thing and really crap at the other things. If your teachers tell you that you've let them down... fuck 'em. Concentrate on being good at one thing." He knew even then that he wanted to be a writer. "I sat next to this friend at school for eleven years and we never ran out of things to talk about. Our careers advisers advised him to go into the army, and I was advised to go into the Civil Service. But I wanted to be a writer and he wanted to design motorbikes for movies. Now, all these years later, I'm a writer and he designs motorbikes for movies. We stuck to our guns, I think, because there's an instinct you can't ignore; it's too strong. That's what you are, for good or bad; that's it... At 18 I was as good at Art as I was at writing, so I went to Art College -- to Goldsmiths. At that point, everybody was going to Art College, and everybody was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! I think there's a perfect time to read every book, although that particular book is absolutely ghastly. Anyway, I became an Advertising Copywriter. If it was good enough for Salman Rushdie, it was good enough for me!"
At the tender age of 24, Fowler set up his company, the Creative Partnership.
"I was sick of writing ad copy and working on rubbish. One thing I loved was movies. Hammer Horror was on its last
legs, and nothing had stepped in to replace it. The business is doing well. We market films. We like to deconstruct."
Fowler's advertising background has certainly stayed with him, to one extent at least: he can sum up his own work in
neat and tidy phrases. (Example:
"'Spanky's Back in Town' was a Mephistophelean-Fun-For-An-Afternoon thing."
) Asked a similar question, other authors pontificate for half an hour, trying to give the impression that they have
never considered the matter.
Aged 28, Fowler experimented by moving the business to America, which was when the writing began.
Aged 28, Fowler experimented by moving the business to America, which was when the writing began."The film work didn't really catch on in the States," he said. "I realised that the only way I would make any money in America would be by taking on really shit work, which would contain no creativity at all. That became depressing, and a funny thing happened. You never have time on your hands in London, but when I was in the States I suddenly had terrible empty hours to fill. So I started writing short stories, and I hadn't really got any confidence -- I'd written a couple of really bad books..." But synchronicity was on Fowler's side. "I knew Clive Barker. He lived up the road from me; we drank in the same local. He had an editor called Barbara Boote, and he'd already written The Books of Blood, or at least one of them. The first one came out, and I suddenly realised that I had enough material for a book of short stories. And they published it. That gave me the nerve to write a longer piece, which was Roofworld."
It is fair to say that London itself is one of Fowler's main inspirations, and he used an interesting experience in the city to form this first novel. "Yes, with the stories I go further afield -- one's set in Persia, one in China -- but with the novels I tend to stay in London, more often than not. The exception would be my next novel, Calabash, which is due out in May. That one's about a young man stuck in a dead seaside town in the seventies, and how he has trouble separating fantasy from reality. Calabash is the name of the land he visits in his mind when pressures become too much to bear... But yes, I hate the countryside. The outdoors is the place you empty the ashtray. It's the bit between your vehicle's door and your house's door. All my friends live in town. Also, when I started writing, London was under-exploited. The novels were all like this: 'A couple moves to Wales to get over the death of their young son...' And they go to a cottage. The husband is going to write his first book, and his wife is recovering from a breakdown; and then the mysterious apparitions show themselves... If you've read that once, you don't need to read it again, I thought. It's the equivalent of the TV forensic expert picking up the glove with the end of her pen: it's almost like shorthand. But the pleasure you get when you come up with an idea that really does work is fantastic.
"With Roofworld, the idea I came up with was because, in the place where I used to work, all the buildings were joined, and the burglars used to come in through the top floor. We were burgled, and they let in thousands of pigeons. I went in to the office on Monday morning, and it was like a scene from The Birds! Thousands of these things flying around. Terrified me... They took all the computer equipment -- the burglars did, not the pigeons. That really would be a sight... And there was another factor. It was interesting to note that only the top halves of the buildings were original, whereas the bottom halves would get spruiced up and decorated from time to time. I wanted to use that. It grew from there."
Cut to Fowler's Problems With America, Part 2.
"With Roofworld, there were three quasi-mystical chapters in it that the Americans cut out. They wanted the story straightforward, saying the readers want drama, or horror, or one thing and not the other. I don't publish well in the States at all. Red Bride came out over there to disastrous notices. Roofworld came out to a couple of good notices. The other thing is, my American publishers can't cope with the comedy; but I felt that black comedy was the correct response to the times in which we live. It felt important to me, even if it was laughter in the dark; it's impossible for me to keep a sense of fun out of what I write. That's just part of living in England, a country very absurd in many ways. The fact is, I think, there has never been an idea here that a writer is only one thing. This is a culture, of course, in which Dickens could write a ghost story or a social commentary. But I'm assured that American readers want their reading matter more A to B. Maybe that's why Ballard is mis-understood in the States: he's a genius, and he doesn't explore science fiction as much as he does the psyche. Although I don't sell in America, I sell all over the world. I sell in Dutch, Romanian, Spanish, Russian. Look at this: a nice Japanese Roofworld. You can't have everything, I suppose."
What is his favourite self-penned title?
"I'm very pleased with Soho Black. I like Psychoville a lot. What I try to do is turn each manuscript into a screenplay as soon as I've finished it -- to clean the palatte, as it were. So I know that project's finished. Then if someone wants to make a film, there's a script ready... or nearly ready, I suppose. I've sold options on all the books so far. Nothing ever happens, but hey, it pays for the hallway carpet, so I'm not complaining. The script of Psychoville worked better than the book, if anything. It's the one I get more mail about than any of the others..."
Listen to how Christopher Fowler explained this complex book in six crisp sentences:
"A trio of kids have their formative years wrecked by this horrible commuter town. Ten years later, two of them meet up again, and the girl is extremely damaged -- borderline mad. He seems normal. They get married and return to the town. (Margaret) Thatcher's Dream has evaporated, and in this town everybody is stuck in negative equity; no one's really left. So, he starts a war among the townspeople -- and the whole place ends up in flames." Fowler went on to say: "I couldn't leave it alone: I had to raze the whole fucking town to the ground." There was a large part of personal history in this book. "Then there's a massive sleight of hand at the end of the book, which I probably shouldn't give away here. But it's a sleight of hand that works better visually."
It was interesting to hear Fowler say "I thought Disturbia was a very poor book. I still do, actually. As I say, I'm much prouder of Soho Black." Very interesting, in fact: I reviewed both books, and in my humble opinion, Disturbia is by far the better work. My money, as it were, is where my mouth is, in the sense that a part of my review has been reprinted for the paperback of Disturbia. I doubt the same will be true for the paperback of Soho Black. Nevertheless, "Disturbia is a series of crossword puzzles." A young journalist is set a series of tasks that he must achieve in one night, and one night only. The consequences if he should fail will be disastrous. When I mentioned to Fowler that there was one coincidence in Disturbia that had been a little bit hard to take, he smiled.
"Let me guess," he said. "When he falls off the building and lands on the guy who turns out to be able to solve the telecom puzzle." Correct. Fowler laughed. "Believe it or not, that's the one clue that really did happen. It's a true story. The man who is landed on lives on the streets of Camden, but he used to be involved with telecommunications. Long story...
"In the new one (Soho Black), the lead character is dead. I've been able to have my cake and eat it. An utterly stressed out film executive, who is obviously not going to make it (in his chosen profession), has a heart attack and dies, but he's still up and walking around. Because he's passed through the last great fear, he becomes fearless; he doesn't have to act with a conscience anymore, and he becomes very successful."
Christopher Fowler has been called the hippest horror writer around, and (in "Horror Show") "the finest author working in horror today," which of course is very high praise. His work is fresh, exciting, and above all, bang up to date. "The books can be read like: is this person crazy, or are these things really happening?" Fowler stated. "I wanted to do something that would be horror and also deeply plausible. It's true of Red Bride, and it's certainly true of Spanky, which is divided into two halves: the first half is structured as heaven and the second half is structured as hell." He is going from strength to strength.
David Mathew studied English at university, worked as a teacher in Cairo and Gdansk, and is now a full-time writer and journalist. He is working on a biography of Ramsey Campbell and has recently completed a novel. He is also co-designing a game show.
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