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Return to the Nightmare Country:
An Interview with Stephen Gallagher

Interview by David Mathew
Stephen Gallagher
When Stephen Gallagher published his novel Oktober in 1987 it was to be his temporary farewell to genre fiction, at least as far as his readers were concerned. Never a writer to remain in one place for very long, Gallagher used the early part of his full-time career to examine supernatural horror (Valley of Lights), Northern European legends (Follower), dystopic science fiction (the novelization of his own radio serial, The Last Rose of Summer), and techno-horror (in Chimera). Oktober appeared, and here was Gallagher's murkiest and probably most ambitious novel at that juncture. A Kafka-esque tale of a man literally in the wrong place at the wrong time, Oktober is a tale of chemical malpractice on a continental scale, dealing as it does with a drug which unleashes the collective subconscious. The unfortunate protagonist is experimented on and afterwards persecuted, not least in the hallucinogenic scenes in the Nightmare Country. The book went on to out-sell even the successful Valley of Lights. But Stephen Gallagher was not resting on his laurels. He published mainstream thrillers for a while, although some of the material he presented during this time had been written earlier.

Stephen Gallagher Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Down River
Nightmare, With Angel
Red, Red Robin
A decade after his temporary farewell, Stephen Gallagher has returned to genre fiction. He is currently adapting Oktober for the small screen: three one-hour episodes for ITV which are now being filmed. I asked him how it felt to be back. There was no hesitation whatever: 'I've never really felt as if I've been away. I know the most recent books that I've done have been classified as non-genre books, but during all that time I've still been working to get stuff like this off the ground. So it's not a return as much as I'm emphasizing this side of the portfolio.'

Given that film-making one's own book is a chance to re-evaluate old material, I wondered what new strengths his screenplay had brought to Oktober.

'The script is in spirit quite close to the novel, although in detail I've been able to expand upon it in quite a few ways. Bear in mind, it's quite a long time since I wrote the novel. I first started working on the idea in 1983. The reason I know that is, it's the book I wrote before The Boat House, and I wrote The Boat House in 1984 because that's the year I got Hepatitis in Leningrad. Oktober came out in 1987 and was picked up by a producer and optioned in the late 80s. It lay quiet for four or five years. But when I finally came back to it, I took the approach that I always take with adaptations, which is: I've done the book; I don't want to transcribe the book, or repeat the book. Let's have some fun on the screen.'

Many writers want to be directors on the sly, and some even become successful directors. I wondered where Stephen's interest in film had come from and where he had learnt to direct. He said, 'I'm learning it still. I did come equipped with a number of the basics, because I've always been a film fan, since I was a kid. I had a Standard 8 camera as soon as I could afford one, and as soon as I could afford to I junked it and got a Super 8 camera. Even now I've got my 16mm in a cupboard at home, although next to the machinery we've got on set it's something of an inferior toy. Film-making is something that's always been dear to me, and in a sense something I've always done. When I was five I made my first projector out of a shoebox with a torch inside it. I drew my own films on pieces of polythene and projected them on the living room wall. So there's nothing I'm doing now that isn't an extension of what I was doing then...

'I've mugged up a lot on theory; I've played around; I've worked in cutting rooms. It still doesn't prepare you entirely for the huge amount of technical responsibility that you have on the set. But what I have to say is that I have an extremely good crew who support me and guide me in all that. The procedure on the floor tends to be: I go in with a very clear idea of what I want to achieve at the end but no absolutely set way of getting there. In discussion with the director of photography, the cameraman and the first assistant director, we work out how to achieve what we need to -- and then I step back.

Then there's this marvellous spectacle of all these people absolutely flogging their sodding guts out to make it come right! You set these things in motion and then you wait for it all to come together.'

Stephen Gallagher is a confident and calm presence on set, and he has clearly earned the respect of the people with whom he is working. He does not need to raise his voice and the professionals around him seem happy in their tasks.

When I asked him if he based his film-making style on any director, living or dead, he told me: 'I'm just trying to tell the story. We'll see at the end of the day if I have a film-making style or not.'

In the past, Gallagher attempted to raise other film adaptations of his own work off the ground, to varying degrees of success. Oktober is the first of his novels to be transferred to the screen. What did he think this particular project had which the others might not have had? Why had Oktober been successful?

'It's a meshing of the wheels of the mechanism of the universe! They come together or they don't. Most of the time they don't, and then occasionally they do. And when they do I have no explanation as to why they do. I have the same bag of tricks that I'm constantly putting on offer. Then every now and then I'll meet the right combination of people at the right point in history where my little bag of tricks fits in nicely. It can be something as ridiculous as it was with (the TV adaptation of) Chimera. What started that off was that a TV company had negotiated a slot for a drama and it's co-production partner pulled out, and they suddenly needed a four-hour drama. My script was more or less ready to shoot so they said if we give you a cheque for this can you do what needs to be done. It was as silly as that. It goes to prove there's no way you can hustle and rig and make things happen. You just have to be true to your own ideas, and be consistent in your application so that when the opportunity comes you are 100% ready.'

What plans for the future does Gallagher have? At the end of 1996 he was in discussions with his publishers, who at the time were not content with the fact that he had characters in his new manuscript, The Painted Bride, who had been in some of his earlier books, with earlier publishers. This would seem to be an enjoyable method of cross-fertilization within one's own oeuvre (and one that Robert Heinlein, among others, used often) but I wondered if the situation had been resolved. 'Resolved in the sense that I had to put the whole caboodle on one side to concentrate on this anyway. I have a book that's lined up and ready to go as soon as this film is finished, which is going to take me over to North Carolina. So my intention is to press on with that one and return to The Painted Bride at a later date.'

What, then, is the next book project? 'The working title is The Spirit Box, and will probably be the finished title. It's been through several titles and that's the one that's stuck. It's about an English guy who's coming to the end of a contract in a research role in North Carolina. He's working for an extremely high-powered, high-tech company and his family's been over there with him. Now it's the last day of his contract, his wife has returned to England ahead of him -- so it's just him and his teenaged daughter. They're clearing out the house, and just as he's hearing the phone line being disconnected he looks up the stairs, and his daughter's standing at the top.

And she says, Daddy, I've done something stupid. And what's she's done is take every pill in the bathroom cabinet; and this simple but very real and possible incident sets in motion a chain of events and a personal odyssey for him that takes him right up to the edge of accepted normal reality so that he peeps over into the abyss.'

Gallagher has an inquisitive, self-analytical mind, and he was quick to dive into explanations about this work in progress: 'Although it's a realistic contemporary thriller in the way that Red, Red Robin was, it does venture into Oktober territory. So you could say the book is a synthesis of the two styles I've employed in the past. Never consciously employing them as two different styles, you understand.' At what stage is the novel? 'It's synopsized, it's partly researched: I've got my research contacts lined up over there to go and meet. And I've had to put that all aside because I'm on an exclusive contract, which means I can't work on anything else but this film.'

Apart from novels, of course, the author is well known for his shorter fiction. His short stories pack a strong emotional punch. I was among a crowd that saw him read "Homebodies" to an audience in 1991. There was the atmosphere of a held breath, and although it might be a cliché to say it, you really could have heard a pin drop. Does he still write short stories? 'I haven't written any since the end of last year but I do still write short fiction. Short fiction has always been something I do between projects -- to decompress a little. And what's tended to happen of late is, the projects have butted up very hard against one another. There hasn't been the breathing space in between.' Possibly, then, one day the stories will be collected... 'There's always a possibility of that, but then it recedes when projects like this get started! I still hope to see the short stories out there in hardcovers one day. It would make the most mega-anthology if you were to bung them all into one book. About a quarter of a million words, so it'd probably have to be broken down into several volumes. When I was a kid my bedside companion was The Collected Stories of H.G. Wells, and it would be great to have everything in a fat volume like that. 21 shillings my H.G. Wells cost!'

For the duration of the filming of Oktober, Stephen has taken out a temporary lease on a place to live in London. I wondered to what extent living in the north of England informed his writing. 'I think to a greater extent than even I suspect,' he replied. 'Living down here in London I feel like a somewhat different person, leading a somewhat different life. I do hanker for the life I have in the north, in the green fields, with the graveyard opposite the study. Up there it's a very introspective life I lead, somewhat solitary but not lonely because I have the family and a good group of friends around me.

But the crucial parts of my day when I do my thinking I do it alone with no pressure on me, apart from the pressures I create for myself. Whereas here, all the thinking you do you do on your feet. And you need very rapid answers to very real problems.'

Gallagher has written short and long fiction, and has now directed a TV drama. Is there any medium he would still like to work in? 'I'd like to try to a feature after this. It would be twice the schedule and half the shots. Doing three hours for television in seven weeks is a tremendous kick-bollock-and-scramble. Although you do your best not to compromise, you do realize that what goes out the window is rehearsal time, improvization time, experimentation time. You go in knowing what you want. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. And if it doesn't work, tough luck: you've already moved on and you're in your next locale. With a feature, you're still working within constraints but your constraints are a little bit more user-friendly.'

Are there any other film projects in the offing? 'The Boat House and Nightmare, With Angel are still very active as film projects. I'm still closely involved with both of them. Rain I still have in a back pocket. I was approached by a director a couple of years ago who passionately wanted to do it, but I wouldn't let him because I wanted to do it myself. The great thing about filming Oktober is, it takes some of the heat off me, some of the drive off me. I suspected that after I'd done this I'd be so possessive of everything that I wouldn't let anybody near it. But now I feel that I'd let other people pick up the batons and run with them. With my blessing, rather than envy them every step of the way. Because I've been there and I know there's a lot not to envy! Plus of course I don't want my future career to be entirely consisting of retreading my past career...'

On past evidence of Stephen Gallagher's fondness for tackling new subject matters and styles, this seems unlikely in the extreme.

(This interview first appeared in the February 1998 issue of Interzone.)

Copyright © 1998 by David Mathew

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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