Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #4 - Christopher Fowler

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews Christopher Fowler

If you’re any sort of avid reader there’s always a small circle of writers whose books you buy year after year no matter what. These writers eventually take on the mantle of old family friends (without the inconvenience of having to buy birthday cards or Argyle socks at Christmas). They go on holiday with you, keep you company in hospital waiting rooms, and cheer you up when the skies are grey. One of my adopted writers is the ever-green Christopher Fowler whose books I’ve been delving into since the late 80’s. From his fresh-faced earlier novels like Roofworld, Soho Black and Darkest Day to the whizz-bang pyrotechnic firework flashes of his short story collections – and not forgetting the incomparable Bryant and May series of peculiar detective stories, Christopher Fowler has been a constant source of laughter, chills and outright sheer enjoyment. His latest novel – Bryant & May and the Invisible Code is available from all the usual places including a few selected eel-pie and winkle shops around the capital. I’d have loved to chat with Christopher, but as usual The Reverend Strachan McQuade got there ahead of me, discarding his rumpled tweed jacket and horribly stained trousers for a Pearly Suit before performing a perfectly executed Lambeth Walk along Shoreditch Main Street. Bloody show off.

Strachan McQuade R.I.P
Christopher Fowler

McQuade: Ever since Stephen King began peppering his work with song lyric references, it opened the floodgates for other writers to blatantly name-drop their favourite singers/beat-combos into novels, perhaps in the misguided hope of receiving free gig tickets and complimentary gramophone records. Even I, a man of the cloth, have indulged shamelessly in promoting the stirring music of Moira Anderson and Kenneth McKellar in my best selling book, 'Invergallus'. However, this week's guest, Christopher Fowler, (canned applause) seems to have no interest in allowing music to play a dominant role in his novels.

(Strachan swivels dramatically, almost dislodging his head) 

So tell me, Fowler. Is this musical omission down to the fact you don’t feel the need to endorse the popular music genre or simply because you’re embarrassed about the lacklustre content of your CD collection?

Fowler: Quite the reverse. My music collection is of such thrilling diversity that even thinking about it makes me ill. But it would not reflect the tastes of my withered crime-solvers. I’ve had to chuck away all album covers to create my inexplicable filing system. My music divides into: Classical, soundtracks (in 30 years of working in film I have scores even the directors of those films don’t possess), new modern (Nyman, Wim Mertens etc), pop (starting at Manfred Mann and heading through Pet Shop Boys to Plan B), shows (Titanic - The Musical, anyone?) and random weird shit (1950s electronica, old Eno) but soundtracks get a workout while I work.

McQuade: Strangely enough, I was playing my '20 Classic Steam Trains' long player at full volume while perusing your recent novel Hell Train - a rip-roaring return to your no-holds-barred horror roots – a book which reads like a rocket-propelled pastiche of any number of Hammer Horror films put through a blender and then left to marinate overnight in a haunted house. (pauses to wheeze asthmatically) What was your main motivation for this book? A long abiding love for all that Hammer Horror stood for, or a secret hankering to go train-spotting? And more importantly, did you get to meet Peter Cushion? 

Fowler: Sadly I will only meet Peter on the Other Side. My Dad used to know him because he lived in Whitstable and my Mum worked for Hammer as a legal secretary. She met Christopher Lee and still describes him as ‘heart-slowingly boring’. I wanted to write the film Hammer had let me down by not making and think I did a damned good job of it. I grew up with the Hammer films and there was always a post-coital sense of let-down with them (see ‘Paperboy’).

McQuade: Your books demonstrate an almost omniscient knowledge of inner London and if you ever give up the writing lark I'm sure you’d make a first class taxi driver. London tour guides must be seething at the cavalier manner you freely let slip trade secrets and give away closely guarded locations of fascinating nooks and crannies around the city. Do they ever picket outside your house with strongly worded placards and throw jellied eels at your window? Probably be a waste of time telling them to get lost as tour guides generally know their way around and very rarely get disoriented. 

Fowler: You seem to have answered your own question there, luv.

McQuade: (sighs) Yes, I did, didn't I?
Sometimes I wonder why I bother chatting to guests on here at all when I could probably do just as good a job answering them myself. Anyway, seeing as you're here now, answer me this - do you feel your novel 'Spanky' was indirectly responsible for inspiring the awful '50 Shades of Gray' series? Or could at least be considered (laughs into hand) a seminal influence?

Fowler: Once again I proved too clever by half and far ahead of my time. No, Spanky was the Fight Club of its time as it has the same story and came out a year before. There’s part of the British reading audience that’s not very bright or well read. They’re startled by loud noises and periodically get frightened by things they don’t understand. This makes them easy to round up and put away, or be fed rubbish like ‘Fifty Grades of Fey’. They were gulled into buying Spanky by its spunky cover, although it took the publishers’ grounded reps to explain to my fusty editors why it would be a good idea. Generally, my books are for readers with brains, which leaves me outside the mainstream next to SF authors, but this time I tricked them. Basically that’s what I do – lull them into a false sense of security with elderly detectives, then hit them with pro-liberal issues like immigration and gay marriage.

McQuade: Sorry, missed a bit of that as I was watching a spider climb up the wall behind you. Amazing how some of them have really hairy legs. But regarding your words on writing for clever people, unfortunately my publishing contract stipulates that I'm obliged to write for stupid people with no brains at all. This means I'm bound to include at least seven perforated nouns (ie bowel, eardrum, toilet-paper) on every page. Thankfully, my past experience as stand-in speaker for the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (more wheezing) was ideal preparation for such an eventuality. 

Keeping on the subject of extremely stupid people, I’ve often wondered if you were related to that horrible Fowler family in Eastenders, although I can't really imagine a dapper chap such as yourself pottering around in a vegetable allotment with a trowel and thermos flask clasped in mittened hands. But do tell - if you ever got handed the starring role in a popular television soap opera, which one would you plump for and why?

Fowler: I have never seen Eastenders. Television is for appearing on, not watching. I hardly ever see it, as my parents instilled me with the secret of its true purpose; to lull the brain into a state of such passive receptivity that I would consider changing my bank or adding hot water to a Pot Noodle as an act of celebration. Television is for people who are too poor and imaginatively impoverished to consider going out.

McQuade: Erm...... well, this is awkward. I was going to present you with the farewell gift of a black and white portable telly which I found in my coal bunker. At short notice the best alternative I can offer is a woollen bathing costume with an embroidered herring motif on the buttocks. No? Well, suit yourself. At least FG Cottam pretended to look grateful when I gave him those shrimping nets. See yourself out then, there's a good lad, but don't use the ..................(sound of a collapsing metal structure followed an anguished yelp)...... fire escape.

You can hear more from Christopher Fowler here at his blog site.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Perfect Wife

Necromancy, the Walking Dead and................... Michael Buble. Read 'The Perfect Wife' on Thriller, Killers, 'n' Chillers. Warning - this story contains goose-feathers which may be harmful if ingested.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #3 - FG Cottam

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews FC Cottam

One of my favourite authors over recent years has been the excellent FC Cottam, author of such literary dread-driven novels such as The House of Lost Souls, Dark Echo, The Magdalena Curse, The Waiting Room and Brodmaw Bay. I remember feeling quite bereft when Irish writer Denis McEoin finally folded away his pseudonym, Jonathan Aycliffe, like a tattered and soiled burial wrap. Where was my fix for claustrophobic, tersely written stories of the supernatural going to come from next? After all, there's only so many times you can re-read MR James. Then a friend suggested I might like to read a novel by this guy called FG Cottam and suddenly my reading spectrum was rendered whole and complete again. Once more I had good reason to draw the curtains, light a roaring fire in the hearth and pay some jobless blokes to howl like banshees down my chimney and spray pretend rain against my windows (well, it was the middle of summer). When I heard FG might be amenable to an interview regarding the publication of his new novel, 'The Colony', I spruced myself up, cycled all the way from Glasgow to London and presented myself at his door - only to be told by a grim faced FG, 'Sorry, it's the Dead Cleric or nothing, mate.' Damn. One of these days, McQuade........................

Strachan McQuade RIP

FG Cottam VIP

 McQuade: Hang about. Where’s that theme music I was promised? (house band strikes up ‘Putting on the Style’ and Strachan tap dances for a few moments before losing a foot which flies through the air to become firmly wedged in the sound hole of a trombone) Impressive eh? Now then Cottam, having read a broad selection of your published work, I’ve observed a definite trend in the subject matter leaning towards malign spirits and demonology. Are you deliberately trying to scare your readers? And if so, where does this glaring flaw in your moral character stem from?

Cottam: I am deliberately trying to scare my readers and do this by scaring myself to the point where sometimes, if I'm alone and it’s dark, I have to stop. Some eras strike me as intrinsically sinister, none more than the 1920s, which features a lot in my fiction. But I can do contemporary chills too. There's a bit in The House of Lost Souls where a cassette player - unplugged and without batteries - starts to play a cassette when its owner knows the player isn't loaded. That left me uneasy for a while around audio equipment. It's more malign imagination than glaring moral flaw.

McQuade: I've been reading your new novel 'The Colony' where the plot is centred around a remote Scottish island. This has to be the scariest thing I've read since Watson gave me '20 Interesting Things to do With a Rancid Cadaver' for Xmas. By Jove, I'd no idea that an ounce of margarine and a woolly hat could provide such entertainment. Still, much as I enjoyed your new book, I was slightly disappointed there was no mention of shinty matches or pass-the-haggis (a game usually played the morning after a Burns Supper). Why don't you talk a bit about 'The Colony' while I pass the time playing darts. (thock, thock, thock) Bullseye!

Cottam: The Colony was written straight after Brodmaw Bay. Bay was character-driven and concentrated on a nuclear family and their immersion into a small and secluded coastal community. After writing it, I wanted to do something event-driven with a much bigger cast of characters. In The Colony, a media magnate tries to halt the dwindling circulation of his flagship news-stand title by investigating the New Hope Island vanishing - a mystery that has puzzled the world for almost two centuries.
A community of 200 people disappeared abruptly. They left no trace. Now, a team of hand-picked experts is assembled, with no expense spared, to discover what happened to them. The story of the New Hope expedition – and its findings – will run as an old fashioned rolling exclusive. Except that when they get to their isolated lump of granite in the Hebrides, the expedition members find rather more than they bargained for.

McQuade: (Thock Thock Thock) Still playing. Continue please.

Cottam: As you wish, reverend. In musical terms, Brodmaw Bay was a solo acoustic performance. The Colony is the full band all plugged in with the amps cranked up to 11. That analogy might be lost on a deceased man of the cloth; but I can assure you that not a single haggis endured a moment’s unnecessary suffering during the writing of the novel.   

McQuade: I'm most pleased to hear that. As someone who sends five shillings to The Haggis Sanctuary every month, I do get hot under the clerical collar to hear of the poor beasties suffering ill-treatment. Now, in your book ‘The House of Lost Souls’ I was most impressed to see that you had recruited Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason to play a prominent role. Have any other members of Pink Floyd appeared in your novels? I'm sure I spotted Dave Gilmour serving up a pint of best bitter in a pub scene. Also in the same book, a wicked character named Dennis Wheatley makes a surprise cameo role. Did you base him loosely on the famous writer occult writer of the same name? I only ask as both men wear smoking jackets.

Cottam: My character shares Nick Mason's name, but none of his rhythmic talent. When Pink Floyd were lording it in the album charts, I was more of a Faces fan. Most of the music in that novel is the output of people who died at their own hand. It's distinctly posthumous and generally unwelcome. Dennis Wheatley I have always suspected far more involved in the dark practices he described than he ever let on. And you can't libel a person when they're dead, thankfully. So far, he hasn't come back to haunt me.
(Editor - Give it time FG. Give it time)

McQuade. Sportsmen, catwalk models, and pop singers  attract attention from perfume manufacturers to bestow brand name scents upon them. For some reason no writer in history has ever been accorded such an accolade. (Editor - and please don't bother writing in to complain. Katy Price IS NOT A WRITER). However FG, you definitely look like one of those square-jawed blokes on the telly who allows cameramen into his bathroom first thing in the morning in order to advertise razor blades, so perhaps one day, who knows? Maybe there could be a Cottam Cologne. If so, what would it smell like? And don't bother saying dog's liver with onions because I already tried that and it was rubbish.

Cottam: Square-jawed is one way of putting it. My teenage son told me I look less like a novelist than a contract killer in the computer games he plays. I have to cite the Jessica Rabbit defence – not bad, just drawn that way. I wouldn’t have thought commercial sponsorship your area of expertise, but if IWC or Omega opt to sponsor authors, I’ll happily wear the watch.

Scent is actually quite important in my novels. My glamorous women always seem to wear Shalimar. The male ghosts smell of cigars and camphor and brilliantine but if they do wear cologne, it’s a dab of Vetiver. Both of those are Guerlain fragrances and I think both date from the early 20th century. If you want a bit of trivia, reverend, Van Morrison name-checks Shalimar on Astral Weeks. And Peter Sellers always wore Vetiver.

McQuade: Nothing wrong with a bit of brilliantine, sonny. I never go to a roller-disco without a dab of the stuff. Always works for me. Now, what is it with you and Kate Rusby? You seem to enjoy promoting 'The Barnsley Nightingale' in your novels. Is she your favourite singer or maybe a second cousin you're obliged to plug or suffer being shunned from family weddings and funerals? I've nothing against subliminal advertising. Indeed, back when I was still in the pulpit and reading a long dreary Sunday sermon, I would sometimes hold up a bag of ripe tomatoes or a pork chop, a favour for which I'd be paid ten shillings by the village greengrocer or butcher. Got a bit out of hand when the undertaker asked me to snowboard down the nave on a coffin lid at the Xmas service.

Cottam: Oh, Strachan, you flinty old soul. Not everything in life is profit-driven. I’ll bet your pulpit had a coin box attached, like one of those children’s rides outside Tesco. (Editor - You're spot on there, FG)
I first heard Kate Rusby when Robert Elms played Sweet Bride from the album Sleepless on his radio show ten or 11years ago. His verdict was that it sounded, ‘A bit Cecil Sharp House.’ But my ears had just been sent to heaven for four minutes.
She’s the only singer who makes me cry. I can’t listen to her rendition of John Barbury without welling up.
The song that features in The Colony is The Recruited Collier. Because I make my novels up as I go along, I didn’t know at the outset how important it was going to be to the plot. When the character who first hears it recognizes the song, that’s to tell the reader that there’s a bit more to him than appearances might suggest. But then of course it later becomes crucial in supplying clues as to what happened on New Hope.
The song was written at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and well might have been familiar to members of the New Hope community. But if I wasn’t a Kate Rusby fan I would never have heard it and it would never have assumed the significance it does in the story.

McQuade: Another astute observation I've made about your story-lines is that military chaps seem to pop up here, there and everywhere. Some have even been cunningly camouflaged as trees, bushes and assorted maritime accessories, but I'm wise to that sort of ruse having once been official Chaplain to the Royal Highland Fusiliers during the Great War. All that walking about with my feet splayed at right angles to my shins played hell with my arthritis and the glued-on moustache brought my top lip out in a nasty rash, but apart from that the war itself wasn't too bad. Sorry I'm losing track here...... (Editor - don't we know it) What I meant to ask was, given the amount of uniformed personnel in your books, can we assume that you yourself have bravely served Queen and country? And don't say if you tell me you'll have to kill me. You'll be wasting your time on that score.

Cottam: I've never been in the armed services. I get asked that a lot by blokes who have and when I tell them I haven't they tend to nod and wink knowingly. But I really never have. I have given some of my characters military credentials as a sort of short-hand for letting the reader know they're resourceful and physically formidable. But the male characters from whom most is asked in the last two books are not physical men at all. I found it quite refreshing to make them so fallible and think they're easier people for most readers to identify with.

McQuade: This may come as a shock to your adoring readership, but my research team (Editor - he means me) have unearthed a scurrilous rumour that you were once employed as magazine editor of a Men's Health periodical. Obviously you'll have had to delve deep into the world of prostate malfunctions and the mind-bending problem of penile priapisms. I'd like to quote one of the magazine's cover blurbs which boldly stated - 'Get Big Arms in Three Weeks'. Exactly how much extra length to someones arm could you achieve before they resembled a baboon? And what method was used? A medieval rack? Hanging people from beams with clootie dumplings attached to their feet? It all sounds extrordinary to me.

Cottam: Before Men’s Health, Strachan, and at the risk of a volcanic eruption in your blood pressure, I must confess that I edited FHM. In my day it majored on sport and fashion rather than scantily clad soap starlets. It was the early 90s, we were literally making up a magazine sector (men’s interest) as we went along and it was incredible fun.

Men’s Health was derided by its rivals pre-launch as a magazine for neurotic losers and hypochondriacs. Within six months it was dominating its market sector and totally setting the editorial agenda. But even my own staff lampooned the cover-lines. ‘Bigger Abs – In Seconds!’ ‘Drop 20 pounds – Today!’

It wasn’t funny when I was woken up by my American employers at two in the morning to be told I’d spelt ‘tyre’ as in ‘Spare Tyre’ wrongly on the cover. But Men’s Health is service journalism of the highest quality. That’s service as in advice, rather than the sort of service over which you presided in church. It sells because if you do what it tells you to your life gets better.

As a bonus, most people in the world of glossy magazines are women. It's often said that I write strong women. That's because I met women working in magazines who combined intelligence, formidable organisational skills, strong wills and glamour. They're really out there!

McQuade: I'll have to take your word for that, FG. In my village those sort of sassy women would have been branded harlots and lucky not to be tarred and feathered before being driven out of town...... in a Citroen 2CV (to further embarrass them). Just another example of society changing for the worst. 
Anyway, last question before I untie you and set you loose from that chair. When out and about signing copies of my best seller 'Invergallus' - I am constantly asked by adoring readers what my main influences are from the world of both literature and shinty. For some odd reason they always look shocked when I answer Barbara Cartland to both questions. So tell me, what writers provide the inky-black, well-spring of inspiration for your own morbid, far-fetched tales of quaking terror and haunted mind-scapes? 

Cottam: Overall I think I have been much more inspired than influenced by other writers. I am quite often (and very flatteringly) compared to M.R. James, whose stories I love. I think that’s just because some of my novels are very English in character. That’s certainly true of The House of Lost Souls and The Waiting Room. My stuff is also sometimes called ‘Lovecraftian’, though I don’t think it is at all. I’ll concede the odd gothic tendency.

I like the short fiction of Ursula le Guin and Shirley Jackson. The first great horror story I read was Basil Copper’s Camera Obscura. I loved Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. I think Peter Straub, when he’s good, is pretty much peerless. Stephen King has written three or four novel length masterpieces and his short stories aren’t too shabby either. Recently, I’ve very much enjoyed Phil Rickman.

The writer who made me want to write fiction in the first place was Hemingway, when I read his story, Big, Two-hearted River; which perfectly embodies his iceberg theory concerning character. I’m not going to explain the iceberg theory to you, Strachan, but I can assure you it in no way involved the Titanic.
McQuade: Sorry, not remotely interested in any half-baked theories concerning the humble lettuce. So keep your Icebergs to yourself if you don't mind. I do however, thank you very much for your most entertaining and educational responses to my scalpel-sharp questions. Obviously we've no intention of ever paying you for your inconvenience but I'd like to present you with a pair of matching antique shrimping nets which I imagine will look very sporty when mounted on your scullery wall. Best of luck with your new novel and take care not to tread on that faulty floorboard on the way out. (Crash bang wallop) 

Cottam: Ouch!

McQuade: Ah, never mind, there's a first aid kit in the corridor. Let's see if being editor of a Men's Health magazine helps with splinting that broken nose. Right back to those darts. (Thock Thock Thock) Bingo!

If you want to hear more of FG Cottam then visit his blog page by clicking on the link below. It's completely Strachan McQuade free and you might pick up a few tips on how to have bigger arms.


You can also find FG Cottam's hair-raising new novel, The Colony, here on Amazon.




Friday, 19 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #2 - Phil Rickman

 Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews Phil Rickman (incensed)

The 1st of November sees the much awaited release of Phil Rickman's 'The Heresy of Dr Dee' - the second novel to feature astrologer, mathematician, (and according to some) infamous sorcerer, Dr John Dee. I've been a huge fan of Phil Rickman's books ever since his debut novel 'Candlenight' propelled him into the supernatural thriller limelight. After another four standalone novels, including the momentous 'December', Rickman changed direction and clambered onto the crime shelves, creating a new sub-genre within the boundaries of crime fiction with his Merrily Watkins Mysteries series. He also published two cult novels under the name of Will Kingdom which have recently been republished on Kindle under the Rickman brand name. And there's also brace of teenage novels as Thom Madley. The first of the Dr Dee novels 'The Bones of Avalon' was published two years ago and widely acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. Astonishingly 'The Heresy of Dr Dee' is Rickman's 22nd published novel - no mean feat when you consider how many excellent writers have perished along the way due to cut-backs and the sort of budget-slashing that would impress even Freddy Kruger.
So what is the new book about? I'd give my right arm to tell you but Strachan McQuade trumped me by actually posting his right arm to Rickman and getting the nod.The jammy sod.

Strachan McQuade
Phil Rickman

McQuade: Dear me, still no proper theme music? Why am I not surprised? (pulls out harmonica and plays a few bars of Z-Cars) A bit of music makes a world of difference, doesn't it? Now then, Rickman, it pains me to say it - but I thoroughly enjoyed your new historical novel 'The Heresy of Dr Dee'. All that swashbuckling sword-play, buckets of blood, burly chaps wearing doublet and hose, and not forgetting frequent mentions of busty serving wenches, got me all misty-eyed and nostalgic for my home town of Invergallus. I particularly liked the sex-starved, brainy book-worm character called John Dee whom you used as your main protagonist. Did you just make him up?

Rickman: Actually, I did some research in Invergallus, which is why no buckles are ever swashed, the swordplay tends to be squalid and desperate, the doublets cheap and drab and the serving wenches sad, droopy and well over the hill. However, John Dee being a REAL PERSON, is indeed sex-starved and book-laden, but far too intelligent to be a graduate of Invergallus Tech. He went to Cambridge University at the age of about ten, graduated in advanced mathematics, Greek etc. and by his mid-twenties was famous all over Europe as a Very Smart Person. However, in the UK, as it was not called then, smart people, especially those who knew all about astrology and stuff, were usually suspected of being in league with the Devil. Which is why John Dee is always terribly paranoid - or would have been if the word paranoid had existed in the sixteenth century.

McQuade: As this novel is set in a specific period of bygone history and includes real people from that time frame, it must be difficult to get all your facts straight, although as a former journalist I imagine you never had to bother much with that sort of minor detail in the past. Do you visit your local mobile library to research this stuff? And have you ever unwittingly inserted any anachronisms? ie John Dee buying a packet of Benson & Hedges from his newsagent or listening to Greensleeves on his Ipod?

Rickman: Ah... if only it was that simple. At first I thought it would just be a question of knowing how to get JD from London to Hereford without a sat nav. But you wind up questioning every damn thing you write. I seem to recall that even my much more qualified colleague CJ Sansom once had a bollocking from a reviewer for describing somebody as being built like a sack of potatoes at a time when potatoes hadn't yet been imported to England. It's a bloody nightmare, Strachan. I've spent a small fortune on Elizabethan history books - many of them secondhand, I'm afraid. But it keeps Hay-on-Wye open.

However, worst of all is the dialogue. Now I really like doing dialogue that sounds natural - but how do we know how people really spoke back then? We know how they wrote, but that's not the same thing at all. What was the Elizabethan equivalent of 'So I was like really pissed off with this bastard.' If you say, 'I could suffer no more of this knave!' it sounds a bit stilted these days, even if that's what they actually might have said. So you have to find some way of avoiding making hard-nose street talk sound quaint and twee, and that's not easy.

It's the same with expletives. Words which have become innocuous to us were really strong stuff back them. Like 'Damn you!' was wishing somebody into hell at a time when that really meant something. So, to get the strength of feeling across, I might have to resort to saying 'Fuck you'. Although the word fuck does appear to have been around back then, it may not  have been used as an expletive. Nearly all the swear words back then were related to religion and blasphemy - God's bones!, for example, must have been very heavy stuff when you think about the theological implications. I bet even you, as a Church of Scotland minister, would have thought twice about using that one in a sermon, and even... erm, are you asleep, Strachan? I realise that was quite a long answer...

McQuade: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Eh? Whashat? (pauses to reinsert dentures) That's better. Where was I? Right. One of the main plot strands in Heresy involves a nationalistic group of Welsh brigands, who under the name of Plant Mat once roamed around the countryside killing and raping and stealing before (presumably) settling down in Abergavenny where they remain to this day. Their wicked leader, Prys Gethin, is possibly the most insidiously foul character you've ever spawned throughout the long course of your writing career. Tell me this - how do you deal with casting out of these abominable personalities who infest your head while writing about them? Do they linger around for a while and make you plunder your neighbour's cattle and then ravage any unwary milkmaids at nearby farms? Or do you have a mental sluice that washes them clean away?

Rickman: You think Prys Gethin is... unpleasant? Good heavens, you defame a national hero! My countrymen have suffered for centuries under the yoke of the English and their Norman overlords. We're the last of the REAL BRITS, descendants of Arthur, speakers of the oldest language in Europe. So we kill a few here and there, steal their money and their cattle, rape their spoiled wives... that's nothing to what the bastards have done to us... nothing, do you hear me? Now step outside, you decaying old fart, and take those glasses off...

Oops, sorry. What happened there? Could I have been temporarily possessed by Dee's dark antagonist...?

Good job you always carry holy water with you, Reverend McQuade. At least, I hope it was holy water.

McQuade: By Jove! You gave me a real start there, laddie. And if I'm not mistaken, I've peed my trousers...... again. Still, as a strict Presbyterian, a little urine is always preferable to Holy Water. While I wait for this stain to dry, let's talk about your Will Kingdom novels, 'The Cold Calling' and 'Mean Spirit'. Generally considered by those in the know to rank among your best work, they suffered sales-wise due to publishing them under a pseudonym. Personally you'd never catch me publishing under a pseudonym (Editor - That's what you think mate.....) and obviously your publisher agrees as they've now been republished as Phil Rickman novels on Kindle. What steps are you taking to promote these excellent novels and perhaps make possible the likelihood of a third novel in the series? I'd be more than happy to put up a small-ad in my butcher's window for you.

Rickman: Well, to begin with, I've signed on for Cindy Mars Lewis's Internet correspondence course in ventriloquism. Henceforth, my voice will be coming from the opposite corner of the room, so if you could perhaps move your chair over there...

McQuade: (sound of chair being dragged back) .................Is this far enough?

Rickman: Thank you. (allows himself to breath again) Yes, The Cold Calling and Mean Spirit. Originally published by Transworld under my old family name of Kingdom in the hope that people in search of a Stephen King novel would pick one up by mistake. Actually that's not true, and if it was it wouldn't have made any difference as very few copies ever made it onto a bookshop shelf, with the exception of the cheapo rack in The Works. When their widespread invisibility became unavoidable, I rang the Transworld marketing boss whose name as I recall, was Jonathan King (no, not that one!) and came off the phone wondering why they'd bothered to buy the books in the first place. The answer may have been simple: because I was cheap. 

But then, so was Dan Brown, apparently. (£5,000, I'm told) Dan and I were, in fact, signed by Transworld at around the same time.

'Just bought a novel from a guy who does your kind of thing,' Bill, my editor said one day. 'I'll send you one.'

It was Angels and Demons, and it did indeed look like my kind of thing. So I read up to about page 25, where Dan reveals that his hero, Robert Langdon, is known to his students as 'The Dolphin' because of his prowess in the pool... and, erm, could go no further. I fervently hoped that Bill would never ask me what I thought of it, and, give him his due, he never did... although this may have been because of the additional responsibility of becoming boss of the entire company in the wake of Dan's success. 

This hurt just a little as I thought (and still do) that these two novels were among my very best. Anyway, eventually we got back the rights to both books, and I thought of republishing them under the name Dick Brown, with a hazy picture of an albino monk on the front, but instead opted for a Kindle job with much classier covers designed by Bev Craven, with a John Mason pic for Mean Spirit. We kept the original Cold Calling picture because it had actually been taken by me (for which I don't recall receiving a penny and even had to buy the film - I bet Dan Brown didn't have to draw his own albino monk!) and displayed it to, I hope, much greater effect. Result: it became an Amazon crime and thriller top 20 bestseller within two weeks. Bloody hell, I sound like Stephen Leather... quick, ask me something else... No, don't come any closer, Strachan, just... you know... shout...

McQuade: It's a known fact.... sorry, too loud. It's a known fact that you live with a large menagerie of wild animals such as dogs, cats, donkeys, and a ferocious peacock named Dave, who reduced Watson to tears when it scuffed the paint on his brand spanking new car by attacking its own reflection in the door panel. I laughed for days over that incident. However, it must be said I loathe dogs due to having certain vital components of my skeletal structure buried in the garden by the thoughtless beasts. Cats on the other hand, I tolerate as they can be easily bribed with sardines to carry out light domestic duties such as dusting and polishing the church brasses. The thrust of my discourse is this - animals in your novels regularly get involved in brutal skirmishes with black hearted villains, although very few (if any) ever have to be given a lethal (but merciful) injection by the vet or a passing drug addict. Do you find it far easier to kill off humans than members of the animal kingdom? And would you ever consider writing a novel where the animal is the main character? Examples I can offer are Watership Down, The Jungle Book and Black Beauty. Moby Dick doesn't count as basically that was a story about a big fish.

Rickman: Probably not. Maybe I'm insufficiently adventurous, but a novel where all the dialogue consists of woof, arf and grrrr just wouldn't work for me, somehow. I might be soft about animals, but I'm not anthropomorphic. (The rumours about me having a little Gomer Parry T-shirt made for the dog are entirely untrue. It was for Dave the Peacock. Who's very sorry about Allan's Porsche, but he would insist on having band practice in Dave's barn...)

Dave the Peacock
Yes, this thing about no animals being harmed in the making of these books.... well, it's not true, for a start. Arnold the dog lost a leg and Ethel the cat got a good kicking, and the fact that the perpetrators of both these atrocities came to unfortunate ends... nothing to do with me, guv. 

Actually killing the dog is a horror novel cliche I decided I wasn't going to buy into. The dog always gets it first - have you noticed that? Stephen King's done for over a dozen - remember the one that was slowly poisoned in The Tommyknockers? I've always avoided reading Cujo. And as for James Herbert sawing all the legs off a poodle... well, as you know, that was the one that went into the woodstove.

Another horror cliche I always avoided was the Undead. In fact I can't believe I'm talking to a deceased person from Aberdeen. I'll wake in a minute. Maybe not even in Aberdeen.

McQuade: Before you leave, Rickman, you don't have any pipe-cleaners I could borrow, do you? No? That's a shame. I was going to show you my party trick of twisting one into the shape of a sausage dog. Anyway, thank you for your forthright views, no matter how ill-conceived. As a parting gift please accept this jar of home-made lemon curd. Unfortunately I didn't have any lemons and made do with cabbage instead. I'm sure you can see yourself out, you know where the door is......... no, no, that's a broom cupboard. And to think this man is one of the country's top writers. Join me next time for another thrilling installment of 'Dead Man Talking' where I'll be chatting with - erm.... someone else.(takes out harmonica and begins to play the theme tune of 'The Virginian')
 Check out Phil's web site here

Monday, 15 October 2012

Sir Harry Secombe, Polish Payola & the Bay City Rollers

Blimey, what a strange way to spend a Sunday evening.  There was me looking forward to watching Songs of Praise and maybe reading a few of the scriptures before retiring to bed with a cup of cocoa and Sir Harry Secombe on my Ipod, when I got invited to spill my guts on Celtic Music Radio by old friend Ralph ‘Fluff’ Kelly. 
‘But why me?’ I protested feebly. ‘No-one is remotely interested in anything I have to say.’
‘On the contrary, Al,’ Ralph countered. ‘All those colourful anecdotes relating to your highly respected  musical career, not to mention your huge contribution to the literary world. How can people fail to be enthralled? And don't you worry, I'll say nothing to embarrass you.’

So I accepted. And what was the first thing Ralph brought up live on air? My getting sacked as lead guitarist of the reformed Bay City Rollers after only two days. Then came the Polish chart-rigging scandal of ’85, followed by insults about my bald patch. A lesser man would have crumbled as the skeletons tumbled out the closet. But I steadied the ship, got the interview back on course and made sure Lol Robinson & Hazey Jane II got a decent airing (5 songs), as well as the title track from the Candy Séance Cd ‘Through a Whisky Glass Darkly’ (and before you ask, Candy Séance is not my dead porn star name, no siree). 

I followed these successes with a brief summary of my much admired novels, played up my comedy sketch career to make it sound like I was a modern day Woody Allen - and then proceeded to fulfil a lifetime ambition (I always wanted to present Jackanory) by reading out a piece flash fiction called ‘The Ladies Trepanning Society’. I was just about to give a quick demonstration of 'Cooking on Radio' (Beef Bourguignon with Pommes Frites and Honey Glazed Artichokes) when the producer called time and I got bundled out the building by a menacing security guard with a big dog and told never to return.

Many thanks to Ralph 'Fluff' Kelly for a most pleasant evening and I'd like to say sorry about the small fire I caused in the mixing desk (how was I to know you're not meant to place a flare gun on top of electrical equipment?).

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #1 - Caitlin Sagan

Strachan McQuade Interviews Caitlin Sagan

This is the very first showcase for my blog and after a few rowdy production meetings with the backroom staff – we decided to point the spotlight on my good friend Caitlin Sagan whose stunning photographic work and eye-catching book covers have been attracting a tsunami-like tidal-swell of admirers. Seeing as how this is my blog I naively assumed I’d get to do the interview, but my editorial assistant Strachan McQuade produced a signed document from some years back stating that if at any time in the future I had a blog then he was to undertake these duties. It does look like my signature on the document (witnessed by a GP and our local greengrocer) but……… it’s odd I don’t remember a thing about it. Anyway, without further ado. Over to you Strachan. 

Strachan McQuade RIP

Caitlin Sagan

McQuade: What? No theme music? By Jove, can’t see this showcase thing lasting long. Anyway, my first question to you, Ms Sagan, is do you mind if I smoke my pipe? It’s a lovely old Cherrywood. Princess Margaret said it made me look distinguished in a roguish yet scholarly sort of way.

Sagan:  That would be fine. Do you mind if I drink this lovely Sloe Gin?

McQuade: In my experience alcohol and women don’t usually make for a good combination. It makes them start dancing and shrieking about unfulfilled sex lives, but imbibe if you must. So then, you’re a photographer are you? You might be interested to know I still have an old Box Brownie which I find perfectly adequate for taking snapshots of land-fills and shopping centres.
According to my badly researched notes, you use a digital camera which I personally think is nothing less than blatant cheating. But answer me this. What unfair advantages does digital photography give you over traditional hard working photographers who still have go to Boots the chemist to develop their photos? Apart from not being arrested for the racy stuff, of course.

Sagan:  Hmmmmm… (snorts with annoyance) Digital photography doesn’t give any unfair advantages, it’s just a different medium, which allows me to do things that Boots can’t do. Seriously though, it’s liberating, being able to shoot loads of photos and not worry about the printing costs. Trying out new things and not fretting too much about getting it perfect each time. It enables you to stumble upon different effects and above all, it’s great fun. I could never have done infrared or HDR photography with a traditional film camera.
Funnily enough, landfills and shopping centres sound like good photography locations. You’re full of surprises.

McQuade: I am indeed. (removes head and juggles with it) I hear through my speed-dating website that you’re involved in some kind of calendar promotion. I hope this isn’t anything like those old strumpets from the WI who thought it would be entertaining to undress in public and hide their what-nots behind buttered crumpets and strawberry jam flans.

Sagan:  Nope, my crumpets are well hidden in this calendar. In fact I even think you’d approve, Mr McQuade. It’s a photo of our local church, the cathedral of the Colne Valley, shot in infrared and is going to be on the cover of  the local fundraising calendar which will go on sale this weekend at the world famous Marsden Jazz Festival.

 McQuade: Approval granted. You’ve also been designing book covers for writers not good enough to get a proper publishing deal (like Watson). What other writers have you been working with and name three authors you would kill to design their covers. Obviously I don’t mean kill the authors, that would be both stupid and illegal.

Sagan: I have indeed done a few book covers recently, including Mr Watson’s and for your good self too, Mr Mc. I also did David Barber’s excellent recent series of stories, ‘From a Crowded Mind vol.1’, and Julia Hawkes-Moore’s ethereal ‘Dancing in Circles’ both of which were challenging and great fun.

I would seriously LOVE to do a cover for Steve Mosby. His books are dark, menacing and full of shadows which leave you feeling disorientated and stay with you for days. If my photos were a book they would be written by Steve, as that’s exactly the atmosphere I often aim for.

I can’t really add Phil Rickman as I couldn’t improve on John Mason or Bev Craven’s covers, but I do love them and the atmosphere they invoke. If  John or Bev ever get bored…
My third author would be a recent find, FG Cottam. The sense of dread I love is definitely found in his stories and I think I could dredge up a creepy, atmospheric image from the depths of somewhere.

It’s tempting to add Mark Billingham or Jo Nesbo, but I don’t think they would fit the spookiness and creepiness I try to capture in my pictures. I could, however, change style if they *were* interested.

McQuade: Well, they’re not. So stop thinking about it. Rumour has it you’ve been using a static caravan as your working premises. I imagine the neighbours will assume you’re running a bordello. I certainly would if I stayed next door to you. Have you any plans for investing in a more up-market working space?

Sagan:  My beautiful little caravan is a great working environment, but is getting over-run with bookings for friends wanting a ‘glamping experience’. I now have a studio space in an old textile mill full of artists, which is really inspiring and fun. We also have the opportunity to show our work in a couple of galleries, so I now have some large framed prints on public display and for sale. It’s all a bit strange, weird and bizarre. I never imagined I’d find myself in this position until a great friend, Allan Watson, encouraged me to do a cover for his book ‘Carapace’ some time ago. His support and gentle bullying has been just the kick up the arse I needed.

McQuade: As previously stated, when I used to dabble with the old photography lark, I loved to capture the panoramic random topography of Landfill sites, where you were guaranteed to capture lovely snaps of seagulls and other natural scavengers of nature (gypsies, tinkers, Aberdonians). What kind of subject matter rings your bell?

Sagan:  That’s an easy one, as they are the ones I keep returning to- derelict buildings, churches, cemeteries, trees, standing stones, graffiti.

McQuade: Oh well. Each to their own, I suppose. (Looks at watch) I’ve a proctologist appointment in half an hour, so as a final question - what other photographers/artists (apart from me) inspire you?

Sagan:  I love John Mason and the late Simon Marsden’s infrared photos, but I don’t generally like famous photographers. I love Urbex (urban exploration) photos and stuff that’s strange and unusual. Artists I admire are Gustave Moreau for his sense of weirdness and otherworldliness, Auguste Rodin, Antoni Gaudi, Georges Braques and Constantin Brancusi. I also love the Pre-Raphaelites and a whole load of Art Nouveau.

McQuade: Caitlin Sagan. You’ve been a fun and frothy first guest. As a token of my gratitude please accept this Victoria sponge cake along with an old box of sea shells I found under my bed. Thank you and goodnight. Hell and damn – there’s still no theme music. Watson get this fixed! Meanwhile, why not have a gander at Caitlin's photos at