Adam Nevill Interview
Posted by Michelle on September 5, 2008
In the search for a horror book that doesn’t rely in gore and sex, I discovered Adam Nevill’s Banquet For The Damned.
Neil tells us a little more..
Q. Can you start by telling us a little about your current book, Banquet For The Damned?
A. It’s a horror novel, but of a particular caste. One steeped in the occult and the supernatural, in European witchcraft. It’s about something coming back into a modern university town from a grim time in Scottish history – at first through dreams or night terrors and then as a real and growing physical manifestation of ancient evil, felt incrementally throughout the entire town. Something that could not exist, something too preposterous to even suggest in the modern world, and yet …
It is a novel written from my desire to contribute to the great tradition of the supernatural in literature that I have always enjoyed with a passion as a reader. It draws upon the craft of using suggestion and implication to introduce the supernatural to the natural order of things, by offering glimpses and hints as opposed to full and bloody revelations, and by trying to achieve a sense of awe and wonder through the supernatural. But I didn’t want the novel to be a pastiche, but a thoroughly modern novel in idiom. So while I observed the craft of the masters in terms of how I described the unworldly aspects, and created suspense and mystery, I also used the structure of the modern popular horror novel defined by Stephen King and Peter Straub etc in the seventies and early eighties. I hoped to achieve the best of both worlds, to reemploy the subtlety and craft of the past when dealing with supernatural horror, while writing in a thoroughly contemporary and accessible language and narrative.
Q. Where did the idea / inspiration come from?
A. The British Isles has a wonderful, rich and diverse history of the weird tale. And my main influences are drawn from what I would call the great age of the supernatural in fiction, from the late Victorian to the Edwardian period. It is the fiction that made me want to write in the first place, that began the compulsion to write a horror novel. And it’s a very British field – Sheridan La Fanu and Bram Stoker from Ireland, Arthur Machen from Wales, R L Stevenson in Scotland and M R James, Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare from England to name but a few of the precursors of the field.
So these influences informed me on how I wanted to approach a novel of the supernatural, but the concept of a young alienated man seeking a mentor – and a once notorious writer and master of ritual magic and the black arts – in an old town by the sea, I had carried around with me for a while. And, literally, as I drove into St Andrews the first time, a story started to write itself from that simple idea. The novel just took shape in my imagination immediately. I suddenly had this wonderful setting for so many set-pieces. So many things about the town just suggested the story to me.
M R James’s short stories, without a doubt, and Algernon Blackwood and Walter de la Mare were my primary stylistic influences, though their influence is usually confined to short fiction. I wanted to pull it off on an epic scale, and I’d always wanted to have a go at a long, multi-plot novel with an entire history of its own, a rich background and fully developed community and sense of place and atmosphere, like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and King’s Salem’s Lot – the kind of novels I read a lot of in the eighties.
Q. Is the history in the book based on actual documents, or from your imagination?
A. Bit of both. The library at St Andrews university was a wonderful source of information for the occult in Scottish history. At one time I had over thirty books on loan on my library card about witchcraft alone. But I also studied sleep disturbances and anthropology, and the town’s history. I wanted the history behind the witchcraft, and the anthropological information, to seem feasible, and to add authenticity to the story. I think if an author can show a command of place and history and setting the reader is more likely to become immersed in the story and mystery. More likely to suspend disbelief. I keep coming across modern novels with no interest in language at all, with no sense of place, no real description, no atmosphere for a story to rise from, just dialogue and action like film scripts. A few people have said to me that Banquet reminded them of how books used to be written. They’d almost forgotten. That pleased me.
Q. Is St Andrews an actual place, and if so, does it have any occult history?
A. Yes, it is Scotland’s oldest university town. It’s like an Oxford or Cambridge of Scotland. A great seat of learning and once a major European ecclesiastic centre like Rome that attracted huge numbers of pilgrims. In fact the town is planned on three long processions up to the now ruined cathedral. Most of Scotland is steeped in the occult and witchcraft, and the Kingdom of Fife has a very rich history too.
Q. Are you personally a fan of horror books, and do you prefer modern horror writers, or the more classical?
A. I am a fan of the field, and have read much of the canon from its Gothic beginnings onward. I’ve studied it twice at university too, writing thesis, seminars and essays etc, so I have an all round interest as a reader, student and writer of the weird tale. And I think it essential for a writer to read the canon of the field they write in, of what has gone before them, before they make a contribution. And I have discovered some excellent writing right from the classic period of the ghost story until the modern day. So I like elements of the classic and modern. I love M R James, but then I think Dan Simmon’s The Terror is probably one of the best horror novels of all time, and that was published last year. I often reread Lovecraft and Machen, but then tend to look for what I like in those writers in new authors too. I really rate John Marks Fangland and Max Brookes World War Z – which are both very new and innovative approaches to the field. So I’m not stuck in the past, drawing a line at 1926 or anything like that. Nor am I a writer of pastiches, but those who neglect to school themselves in the masters, well, it shows quite frankly, and there a lot of really awful horror novels out there.
Q. You have previously written under a pseudonym.. which genre has been your favourite to write?
A. I wrote a great deal of erotica, cut my teeth in that genre. I read Anais Nin when quite young and she had a huge impact on my imagination. So I’d had a few erotic novels published long before Banquet. I’m concentrating more on the horror now, due to time limitations more than a preference. But writing in each genre has been enormously pleasurable, though also fraught and difficult. Each are hard to get right and are loaded with so many reader expectations. But had I not written so much erotica and learned my craft there, I may not have written Banquet.
Q. What are you working on right now, and what plans do you have for your writing future?
A. I’m just completing a new horror novel – the thirteenth draft right now in fact. It’s taken three years to complete, the same time-frame as Banquet. It’s been a very ambitious novel and I binned 80K words a year ago and started the subplot completely from scratch. It’s nearly broken me at times, and I have seriously thought of abandoning the book twice. But I had the same misgivings, doubts, anxieties and concerns about Banquet (and axed a big portion of that too). But I worry that if I ever abandon a novel, it will become easy to give up on future novels once they become problematic too. I know writers with graveyards of unfinished and abandoned books on their computers. The first ghost story I had published I had been rewriting for five years – I had seventeen versions of it in a folder. So I am relieved I continued with the new book, despite the time – it’s very very creepy. Following that, I have begun a third book, which began as a ghastly image of something I found when hiking in Wales. From that, the story is writing itself.
Often, the main problem with writing a novel, is not the story etc but the way it is being written. I remember Nicholas Shakespeare saying that there are a hundred ways to write a novel and only one of them is right. It’s good advice and a sound warning to the curious. I’ve started plenty of books with the wrong voice or in the wrong point-of-view, or with too great an authorial omniscience etc, or where the writing is flat, but I just go back and rewrite the same book in a different way until it works for me. Crap novels are often successful, but I’ve no ambition to write one of them. I’m not interested in money as a writer. A readership, yes, even if it is a modest one. What’s important is getting as close to the original vision for a book as possible. And that’s as good a purpose as any.
Q. You work in publishing.. do you think that has helped or hindered your road to publication?
A. Banquet had already been published in a limited edition hardback by P S Publishing in 2004, and was lucky enough to have been acclaimed, and I’d had another nine novels published before I came to work in publishing, so the work of getting published initially had already been done nearly a decade before I set foot in publishing. But it has certainly opened my eyes to the reality of publishing – I was pretty clueless before. I think writers increasingly need to adjust their expectations, not so much about getting published but about what it will lead to, and what publishers are able to do for most books.
Q. Would you like to see your book as a film, or do you feel that too much can be lost during the translation to screen?
A. I would love to see it as a film – I’m a huge fan of horror films – and Banquet has been optioned (though that often means nothing so I ain’t kidding myself). But the novel is written in the present tense and was visualised cinematically by me as I composed it, so it is suitable for a film or episodic television drama. And though I would welcome a good interpretation of Banquet, the chances of it being ruined, as most horror films are actually terrible, would be very high. What I worry about is not what is lost during translation, because a film can only be an interpretation of a novel, but I would worry about how many people could interfere on the long critical path from page to screen and gradually, incrementally, ruin it, until even the spirit of the original story is lost in some terrible, vapid rubbish. The best films are made by auteurs and I’d rather it went to a director/producer team with a single creative vision, rather than some dreadful committee made up of Soho media twats, corporate types wanting it to be a facsimile of another successful film aimed at 13 year old girls or something, and the usual raft of hustling wannabes looking to augment a CV by having a say in the film. I worked in TV for eight years, though not in production, but was near enough to sense that those with the best hustling skills tended to get their way and go far, though they were not necessarily the most talented or creative people. Just look at British TV – I think, these days, it is largely a creation of the mediocre. You see, I’m bitter already and it hasn’t even been scripted.
Q. Finally, what else to you enjoy reading, when you have a spare five minutes to yourself?
A. I read a lot, probably more than I write, which is one reason why it takes me so long to finish a book. But that is part of living a literary life, and continually learning as a writer, which a writer should be doing. And I read an enormous range of things from American literary fiction to quality horror to military history. I’m currently reading the last few Cormac McCarthy novels I haven’t yet read.
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