This Month's Special Page Features Conrad Williams:
A Very Humble, Award Winning Author!
(proof that one can be both)
Conrad Williams tells The Horror Zine why new writers need more than ideas to become successful; it takes work and belief in yourself along with those ideas. Here's what he did.
Q. All of my contributors want to know how you got your start. I see that you began with selling short stories, then were able to sell your first novel to Europe's The-Do-Not-Press in 1998. How were you able to make the leap from selling short stories to selling a novel?
Lots and lots of practice. I was writing a short story a week during the summer of 1987, when I was 18 years old. I was at a funny time in my life. I didn't have a girlfriend just then, I had crashed and burned with my 'A' levels and didn't know what to do next. All I wanted to do was to write, and I had plenty of time. My parents were at work and I was on my own in the house. So I'd work hard on my Mum's typewriter, parcel up a manuscript and send it off to the small press magazines I was into. I did that for six weeks. Sometimes I'd go to the post office two or three times a day to send off stories. I kept believing in myself even while the rejections piled up. That's a big part of it, I'd say. Bloody-mindedness. You have to keep thinking you're right and everyone else is wrong.
Q. I hear that your first book, published by The-Do-Not-Press, is titled Head Injuries, and that one is currently being optioned for a film. Please tell us about that.
Head Injuries was published in 1998. Not long after, it received a good review in Time Out. Apparently one of the assistants at Revolution Films, Michael Winterbottom's production company, read the review and it led to her reading the book. She liked it well enough to push it at an acquisitions meeting and then I got a phone call, asking to meet. I was taken for a very nice lunch at Soho House where I agreed to their offer to option the book. I jokingly asked if I could take a crack at writing the screenplay and they agreed to contract me to three drafts. It was a great experience, a completely different discipline, but one I'd like to return to at some point.
Q. You are a British writer, enjoying great success and acclaim in the United Kingdom. Do you feel that success is reaching across the pond to the United States?
Success is all relative. It's nice to get good reviews and to win awards, but in terms of selling books, I'm hardly what you'd call successful. What little success I've enjoyed in the States is mainly down to a handful of people. Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen at Night Shade Books, who published my novel London Revenant, and my collection Use Once then Destroy; Paul Miller at Earthling, who published Game and The Unblemished. The VanderMeers, Jeff and Ann, are also champions of my work. The latest book, Loss of Separation, became available in the States at the end of March, so at least I'm visible in the stores there.
Q. Two of your novels, The Unblemished (2007) and One (2010) beat out Stephen King to win the first place awards at the International Horror Guild Awards and the British Fantasy Society Awards respectively. How has that helped your career?
Not one bit, as far as I can see. No publisher got in touch to offer me huge amounts to write them a novel. I've not been headhunted. Currently I'm without a writing contract and I'm between agents. Arguably I'm no better off than I was in 1998, when I was trying to sell Head Injuries without representation. I suppose it helps to get you on the radar. The important thing for me, where awards are concerned, is that it vindicates what I'm trying to do. I write what I want and there are judges and voters out there who get it.
Q. My readers always want to know how a successful writer began so that they can learn from your experiences. What made you decide to become a writer, and how did you start?
I don't think I decided to be a writer. It was kind of the other way around. Writing came so naturally to me, it was like drinking water, or breathing. It was second nature. I loved doing it from a very early age. Like everyone else at school, I was given writing exercises to do, creating little stories, and it was as if a checkbox in my head was ticked. It's the only thing I know how to do and the only thing I want to do.
Q. Did you receive rejection notices in the beginning, and if so, how did you persevere?
As mentioned in a previous answer, it was a case of putting the rejection letter to one side and carrying on. You have to see it as a rejection of the story, not of your writing, not of you, personally. It's all subjective. A might hate your story, but B might love it. It's just that B doesn't work at Big Bucks Books Inc. at that moment. You might then write a story that A likes and B doesn't. It's difficult not to take rejection personally, but if you love writing, then you quickly come to see what's important. I was writing before I knew you could get paid for it. I'll write long after the contracts and the awards have dried up. If it's in you, it's in you for life. And also, rejection might simply mean that your stuff isn't commercial enough. It's not necessarily a quality control thing.
Q. How are you embracing the move to e-books? Do you feel they help or hurt professional writers? What is your opinion of them?
Potentially they provide a powerful platform for writers. Already there are writers massively undercutting the publishers and making their content directly available to the customer. Some unpublished writers are now raking in so much cash that no publishing deal in the world could possibly improve on the terms they have created for themselves. Everyone can be a writer now. More than ever, it's up to the reading public to decide what is dross and what is quality. Which, if you think about it, is how it ought to be. There's a lot of great material that has been lost to the slush pile, many writers with enormous talent who have been broken by red tape and the commercial imperative, the power wielded by the gatekeepers at the major publishing houses. This is a way for writers, especially the ones working the fringes, sticking to their principles, not selling out, to carve a career for themselves. That said, there's an awful lot of work involved producing the whole package and publicizing it... which means less time for writing.
Q. Now on to more personal questions. Are there other writers, alive or dead, that influenced you?
Of course. The cream on an extensive list would include Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Ramsey Campbell, MR James, Ian Fleming, M John Harrison, Christopher Priest, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Thomas Tessier, T.E.D. Klein, Rupert Thomson, Patrick McGrath, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Jackson, Katherine Mansfield, JG Ballard, Derek Raymond, Clive Barker, John McGahern...
Q. What did you do before you found success as a professional writer, and when did you find time to write before it was your full-time job?
It isn't my full-time job, although I wish it was. I've been full-time by default for the past eight years while I've been looking after our three boys. But now that the youngest will be off to school in September, I'll be expected to start bringing home more bacon. After that 1987 summer, when I sold my first short story, I did a year as a trainee journalist at a free, weekly newspaper in the north west of England. It didn't go well; there was a personality clash between me and the editor, so I left after ten months, went back to college and re-sat my A levels. This time I passed them and spent the next five years chasing degrees. I had plenty of time to myself. I wrote a couple of novels in that period, including Head Injuries. In 1994 I moved down to London and worked as a sub-editor for a variety of magazines. I realized pretty quickly that if I was going to continue writing I had to make time for it, rather than find time. I tended to be wiped out after a long day at the office, and I resented giving the best of me to companies I felt no loyalty towards, so I set my alarm clock for 6am and got up every day and wrote for an hour and a half before setting off. It's stunning, sometimes, how much work you can get done in 90 minutes.
Q. What are your hobbies? In other words, what do you like to do when you are not writing?
I like to hang out with my sons, watch films and football with them. I play football once a week with some local dads (one of whom is my very great friend Nicholas Royle, a marvelous writer). I also play the guitar, although I wish I could do so at a greater standard. And I take photographs whenever I can, occasionally making a bit of money from them. I play chess. But I'm always writing, at some level, even while doing these things.
Q. How is your life today in comparison to before you were well-known? Has your life been changed by success?
It hasn't changed much. I suppose I have more deadlines, and more editors contacting me to ask for stories. But other than that, there has been no great upheaval. It's very strange, being a writer. You finish a piece of work and send it off and then you have no idea what happens. It's unlikely you'll see someone reading your work, but you know, or you hope, that's happening somewhere in the world. Even if I were to sell millions of books, there would still be that strange process of deep immersion in a project, followed by a letting go. And then you move on to the next thing and the cycle continues.
Q. Many of my readers want to know: Where do you get your ideas and how do you start a novel?
There's a small corner shop in Buxton, Derbyshire, that will give you sealed envelopes containing ideas if you can provide them with a phial of lilac dust swept from the eyelids of sleeping Hebridean pixies... I'm being facetious, sorry, but the simple answer is to turn it around and ask the same question of you. Even people who don't write, who think that writers are this breed of charmed individuals who somehow have access to a taproot of gorgeous ideas that nobody else can visit... well, they have ideas too, creative ideas, albeit not necessarily destined for the same end.
In terms of starting a novel, what I'll hope for is that two or three separate ideas might collide and suggest themselves as a big project. Then I'll make notes, produce timelines, snip out photographs of people I like the look of in magazines as a visual reference for my main characters, gradually shape the book and break it down into parts and chapters. I used to work without a plan, but since my third novel, I've found it difficult to get going without some kind of structure.
Q. This is probably the most important question of all. This is what my readers really want to know: What advice can you offer writers who are struggling to achieve the level of success that you have achieved?
Keep going. Write every day. It's a muscle prone to wastage just like the muscles in your body. If you're stuck, write something else: haiku, a letter to a dead rock star, a horoscope for the mysterious 13th constellation, a serial killer's shopping list. Anything. It's a tough job, racking up pages. You have to put the hours in. You have to get so many things right: character, plot, pace, narrative arc... it's easy to give up. Thousands have. I've met many people who have said to me: 'I fancy being a writer,' or 'I've got a good idea,' but that's all it is. Talk. I reckon ninety per cent of the battle to be a writer is grunt work. Nobody can do it for you. Why are you even reading this? Get back to your desk!
About Conrad Williams:
Conrad Williams is the author of seven novels, four novellas and around 100 short stories, some of which appear in his collection, Use Once then Destroy.A new collection, Open Heart Surgery, is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He has won the British Fantasy Award three times and is a past recipient of the International Horror Guild Award. His new novel is Loss of Separation. Conrad lives in Manchester in the United Kingdom.
You can see Conrad's official website HERE.
Discover all of Conrad's books HERE.