We here at GLAHW have met so many amazing and talented people out in the big wide world (you know, OFF the internets) and thought it was high-time we introduced them to you. Who knows? You may end up discovering a favorite new artist, photographer, writer, or all-around awesome human. This time around, Ken MacGregor spoke to the legendary Graham Masterton.
GLAHW: Your first book came out almost forty years ago, and you’re still going strong. How do you keep yourself excited about writing?
Graham: Writing is always exciting because it’s about people and the conflicts they have to face in their lives. I was trained from the age of 17 as a newspaper reporter which gave me the facility to be able to question people about the most intimate details of their lives and all the stresses and strains they have to deal with, and that is endlessly interesting. You will notice that most of my novels are about very ordinary people having to cope with extraordinary threats – such as demons, or ghosts, or murderers, or catastrophic disasters like plagues and droughts. As you know I have also written 29 non-fiction books of sexual advice, which entailed interviewing scores of men and women about their relationships and every story they had to tell was different and fascinating. It is a privilege as a writer to be able to give advice and encouragement to readers, as well as entertain them (which of course is the primary job of fiction.) There is always a story out there to be told, which is why I have never understood “writers’ block.” To me “writer’s block” sounds like a dismal downtown apartment building crowded with people who want to be writers but actually don’t have the drive or the understanding of other people to be able to do it. I have more ideas for short stories and novels than I will ever be able to complete in my lifetime.
GLAHW: What drew you to write horror?
Graham: I used to like horror when I was very young. I read Edgar Allan Poe stories when I was nine or ten and I was also a Jules Verne enthusiast. I used to write short horror stories for my friends at school and read them out loud during recess. When I was 13 I wrote a novel set in the days of the Peninsula War which involved the evil influence of monster crabs (which I still have, all written by hand!) and a 400-page vampire novel which has been lost (probably just as well!). I liked to write horror because I enjoyed shocking my readers but I also liked the supernatural element which meant that anything was possible. I gave up writing horror in the 1960s when I was a newspaper reporter and then an editor of men’s magazines, but at the same time I developed a strong interest in the frank and fearless and experimental writing styles of the Beats like Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. When The Naked Lunch came out and caused such a stir I started to correspond with William Burroughs when he was still living in Tangiers, and when he came to live in London for a while I saw him often and we became friends. We talked endlessly about writing techniques and how to write so that as authors we “disappeared” and our readers felt that they were actually living inside the stories that we were writing about. William called it being “El Hombre Invisible”…the Invisible Man. This involves a very thorough and comprehensive knowledge of grammar and syntax, a very extensive vocabulary and a fine sense of rhythm. Writing to me is like music: the reader should be unaware that he or she is reading, but instead can hear the voices and smell the smells and feel the wind that’s blowing on their back. After four years editing Penthouse I quit to write sex books full-time because in those days they were very profitable. I had a five-day space in between contracts so I amused myself by writing THE MANITOU, which was inspired by my wife’s pregnancy and an article about Native American spirits which I had read in The Buffalo Bill Annual 1955. You see how the reporter’s training came into play…an ordinary woman is pregnant but the pregnancy is something highly unusual because it is affected by a demonic spirit. Play off the ordinary against the extraordinary. THE MANITOU was hugely successful and when it was published in the United States sold half-a-million copies in six months. Later it was picked up for a movie with Tony Curtis playing the lead role, as well as Susan Strasberg, Burgess Meredith and Michael Ansara. (All dead now, so we couldn’t make a sequel!) Obviously it made sense for me to continue writing horror novels, so THE MANITOU was followed by THE DJINN and THE REVENGE OF THE MANITOU. Unwisely at that point I branched out into writing historical sagas, and wrote an immense 750-page novel about oil tycoons called RICH. This was very successful, too, and I followed it with other historical sagas, RAILROAD and LADY OF FORTUNE and MAIDEN VOYAGE. But I had lost the early momentum with my horror audience, while Stephen King at the same time continued to build on the audience that he had attracted with Salem’s Lot. I returned to horror with TENGU, a novel about a Japanese demon exacting revenge for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that did well, but it took me years to regain that roller-coaster effect of writing a series of books in the same genre for an audience that constantly demands more. Many readers don’t seem to appreciate that a book that took them five hours to read took five months to write!
GLAHW: Some of your work is very dark and (ahem) mature. Is anyone in your family ever bothered by the things you write?
Graham: No…I come from a very liberal-minded family. On my mother’s side, anyway. I’m not sure what my Scottish grandfather would have thought about HOW TO DRIVE YOUR MAN WILD IN BED, because he was rather conservative and severe. However he was chief inspector of mines in Scotland and contracted a lung disease from going down mines that had suffered various disasters, and died young. His youngest brother fell down a mine shaft at the age of 17, and when I look back over the Masterton family website I see that an awful lot of them died fell down mines. That’s why I try to avoid them myself.
GLAHW: Do you outline or are you more of a “pantser”?
Graham: I always have a strong basic idea but I think it is a mistake to outline a novel too precisely. The characters take on a life of their own as I write about them and they write the book for me. Events that I write early in the story for no particular reason that I can think of eventually turn out to be integral to the plot. New characters will appear that I had never planned in advance. A novel should live and breathe, and not be strictly regimented according to a pre-arranged plan. Otherwise it will end up like stories by Agatha Christie, which (successful as they were) were once described as “typing, with clues.”
GLAHW: I saw in your biography that your Grandfather invented DayGlo. Tell us something else interesting about you not related to your books.
Graham: Apart from writing, one of my main interests has been the welfare of sick or disadvantaged children. I regularly donate to The Children’s Trust, which is a hospital close to where I live which takes care of children with brain damage and other chronic problems. I also support Dom Dziecka, which is an orphanage in Gorzec in southern Poland, where they look after children of all ages from very young to teenage years. Every time I finish a book I print out one copy of the manuscript which I auction and donate the proceeds to a charity in Wroclaw which gives shelter and support to children who have been trafficked into prostitution. This is a difficult subject to discuss in Poland, but I have been working hard to raise the profile of this work. My late wife Wiescka was Polish and because she was born in Germany and had never been to Poland she encouraged me to have my books published in Poland. This has meant that I now visit Poland several times a year, attending horror and fantasy festivals and book fairs all over the country, and have many friends there. In the Planty Park in Krakow there is a bench with my picture and name on it, and a QR symbol which enables anybody sitting there to listen to me on their cellphone reading an excerpt from one of my books. In Ireland I used to read stories to Traveller children in the local library, and supported the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Another interest has been to encourage and support new writers, and I have been working for the past four years with a very talented young woman Dawn Harris to develop her debut novel. I have also written agony columns for American women’s magazines.
GLAHW: Are you superstitious at all?
Graham: I do not believe in conventional ghosts and ghouls, but I am very interested in what William Burroughs called “intersections” – that is, coincidences of a sort when a name or a fact will come up unexpectedly that relates uncannily to something that you are doing or working on. A typical instance was when Dawn and I went to visit my agent in London’s theatre district. We were unexpectedly early, so we went for a coffee into a nearby café. On the way out, we saw a rather grand memorial by the side of the street for Augustus Harris, a theatrical impresario in Victorian times who almost single-handedly invented modern pantomime. Underneath a bronze bust of Mr. Harris were two terracotta Cupids. Not only did it turn out that Dawn is remotely related to Augustus Harris (which she didn’t know before) but one of the supernatural characters in her novel is Cupid. On top of that, my great-grandfather was also a theatrical impresario in Victorian times and managed Dan Leno, who was a famous music-hall artiste and a favorite of Queen Victoria (you can actually hear him on YouTube cracking a joke in a very early phonograph recording.) Dan Leno was regularly employed by Augustus Harris so my great-grandfather and him would have inevitably known each other well. That is what William and I called an “intersection.”
GLAHW: If you had to give up writing, what’s your second career choice?
Graham: Comedian. Then if all of my jokes fell flat a cartoonist. See this link, filmed in a cemetery last year in the Czech Republic. http://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10924720972-skotska-citanka-don-t-worry-be-scottish/314294340090011/
GLAHW: Do you have a daily word-count goal?
Graham: No…I’m not turning out cans of Spam or auto parts. A story has its own changing rhythms and pace, and some scenes will take longer to write than others. I do have deadlines. I am writing a series of gruesome Irish crime novels at the moment featuring Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire and these have proved so popular that my publisher has contracted me to write more and more. They are producing the covers and promoting publication dates even before I have half-finished the novels, which is a lot of pressure. But often it is good to take things slowly, because your mind will develop new ways of solving your characters’ problems and inspire you to write memorable and dramatic scenes which hadn’t occurred to you when you started on page one.
GLAHW: What’s your favorite thing to write – short stories, novels, scripts, etc.?
Graham: I like novels because they give me plenty of room to breathe and introduce new scenes and new characters, but short stories are a very good discipline because every word has to be exact, and there has to be plot and character development and a good twist in them, all within 6 – 10, 000 words. I am also very keen on poetry. It is a tremendous aid to writing precisely and rhythmically and also emotionally. Even if you never submit it for publication, you should do it whenever you can. I also like writing humor. I started a humorous novel called IF PIGS COULD SING about the Indigestible Brothers, a country/rock duo from Iowa, which you can read in the Fiction section of my website www.grahammasterton.co.uk Sadly (or perhaps happily) I have never had the time to finish it.
GLAHW: Is there anything that scares you?
Graham: Income tax
GLAHW: What do you read for pleasure? Favorite authors? Recommendations?
Graham: One of the regrettable consequences of writing fiction for a living is that I can no longer read anybody else’s fiction. I used to love Nelson Algren and Herman Wouk and those hard-boiled American writers of the 1960s but I am like a chef now…if I have been cooking all day I don’t want to cook in the evening. Besides that, I am hyper-critical of my own work and hyper-critical of any other writers. So I read newspapers and non-fiction books related to whatever I am writing at the moment. I tend not to comment on the work of other horror/thriller writers because whatever you say it sounds as if you’re being patronising, or (if you’re critical) sour grapes.
GLAHW: What do you think makes a good story?
Graham: A feeling when you have finished it that you have been given a perception into life that you didn’t have before. I also try to make my readers cry at least once in every book. Crying is good for them. Read it and weep!
GLAHW: As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Graham: An artist or a writer. I was offered an art scholarship which I turned down the day before I was due to start because I was offered a job on my local paper.
GLAHW: What are you reading right now?
Graham: My Home On The Lee, an historical and pictorial record of Cork City. Also The Process, a novel about a black professor’s journey across the Sahara which was given to me in 1970 by the artist and writer Brion Gysin and which I have never managed to finish. It is beautifully written, though, and one sentence per evening is more than enough. When shaken, a box of matches “chuckles”…brilliant.
GLAHW: What’s your favorite way to unwind?
Graham: Having a drink and talking to friends.
GLAHW: What do you believe is the most important thing for beginning writers to know?
Graham: Success in writing can be very much a matter of luck and chance. Stephen King published Salem’s Lot at just the right moment, and (as I said before) he kept up the momentum. JK Rowling was extremely lucky with Harry Potter and caught a public appetite for magic and what amounts to an old-fashioned boarding-school story. Mainly, though, it’s all about being totally original. Don’t write another vampire/zombie/werewolf story. THE MANITOU was successful because almost nobody had written about Native American demons before, apart from Algernon Blackwood and his great story about the Wendigo. Know your craft. Know how to spell and how to construct a sentence properly (the number of times I’ve seen “lose” spelled “loose.”) Do your research but don’t bore the reader with it…just so long as you sound as if you know what you’re talking about. I have a few Rules of Writing in the Fiction section of my website but they are guidelines only…not the Ten Commandments. Don’t take any notice of Stephen King’s rules of writing. He says that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, but you can use as many adverbs as you like so long as you use them welly. Above all remember that writing is extremely hard and laborious. It’s surprising how many readers don’t understand that your novel is all invented inside your head and you’re not just describing some events that you happen to have witnessed. Remember, too, that only a minority of writers make a living out of it. Sorry to be depressing! It’s very hard work, but you can do it.
GLAHW: What’s the best piece of non-writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Graham: Don’t turn on the faucet full-blast in the kitchen sink when there’s an upturned teaspoon in it.
Ken MacGregor’s work has appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines. His story collection, “An Aberrant Mind” is available online and in select bookstores. Ken is a member of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers and an Affiliate member of HWA. He edits an annual horror-themed anthology for the former. He has also dabbled in TV, radio, movies and sketch comedy. Recently, he co-wrote a novel and is working on the sequel. Ken lives in Michigan with his family and two “domesticated” predators.