Sunday 11 August 2013

Interview with Darren R. Scothern

By David Kempf

Darren R. Scothern is an English author and poet. He was born in Sheffield in 1965, and had an average working class education before graduating from The Open University with a first-class honours degree in literature.

He describes himself variously as an author, poet, atheist, rationalist, sceptic and armchair revolutionary.

After finding some success in the small presses, Darren made a breakthrough into the American paperback market, when his award-winning science fiction story 'The Key to Heaven's Gate' was included in The Best Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction of 2009, published by the Absent Willow Review.


Tell us how you became interested in writing

Oh, this is a sad story of regret and wasted opportunities! As a child, I was very 'forward' with reading and writing.  I was doing both fluently long before starting school, long before other kids my age.  The first story I ever wrote, I was probably five or six years old.  It was my retelling of 'Androcles and the Lion', and finished with the lion giving a big happy roar!  Stories just fascinated me.  I think it was the fact that I could escape into fantasy from what was a very unhappy childhood.

I soon got hooked on Marvel and DC comics.  Marvel in particular fired my imagination.  I was fortunate that a friend of our family had been collecting Marvel comics for years, and he had all the collectors items, the first appearances of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and so on.  I was blown away, and all I ever wanted as a career from that point was to write and draw Marvel comics. Somehow, I got it into my head that the way in would be as an artist, and that I could progress to writing later.  I had zero natural talent for drawing, but I worked and worked at it, and by the time I was eighteen, I could draw superheroes really well.  I couldn't draw anything else, mind.  And somehow, by that time, writing had been completely forgotten about.  Then at age eighteen, I became a father.  For the next eighteen years of my life, my sole focus was on being the best dad I could be.  That meant getting a 'sensible' job, and being able to pay the bills.  Any ambitions of writing or drawing for a career were put on hold.  As I got older, my interest in superheroes gradually waned, but the desire to write re-emerged, and was always bubbling away in the background.  Unfortunately, I was surround by a lot of naysayers at that time in my life, and I fell for their negative image of me, completely lost confidence in myself, and gave up on my ambitions.

It was when I hit my mid-thirties, with my son grown into a fine young man, that I started to think, 'Hey, if I don't have a go at this writing thing, I'll never be happy.'  So I started work on some short stories...

Why horror fiction?

I always loved horror movies.  As a kid, I used to stay up late and watch the old Hammer movies on 'Appointment With Fear'.  Back in those days, any attempts to portray superheroes on TV, whether live action or animated, were pretty awful.  But horror movies could more often hit the mark.  I used to read some ghost stories as well, but mainly, horror for me was on the screen.  Until someone lent me a copy of Stephen King's 'Firestarter'.  That changed everything for me.  It was probably the first time I understood horror as a metaphor, and the first time I came across a horror in which the characters were more important than the central 'evil'.  From that point, I read a lot of horror, but perhaps not that widely.  I had no time for James Herbert or Shaun Hutson, and so on.  But Stephen King, Peter Straub, Brian Lumley, etc, they just thrilled me.

I also read other stuff - some SF, fantasy, general fiction and so on.  But I just seemed to have an affinity for horror.

Has writing for helped you improve your craft?

I think that what most writers crave, at heart, is validation.  You write for your readers, and you want a reaction.  You want your readers to love what you write, but if not, then you'll settle for them hating it.  What you don't want is a lukewarm reaction.  You don't want to be ignored; you want to know that you have pushed someone's buttons.  When you're starting out as a writer, this can be difficult.  As an unknown, how do you reach people?   Masters of Horror was a huge help.  It was an outlet for my writing, it allowed me to gauge the reaction of readers, and gave me an actual web presence at which I could point new readers.

Suddenly, I had a new element on my CV.  I have only warm and positive feelings for MOH.

After achieving a certain amount of mainstream success, why would you choose the Amazon self publishing route?

Let me tell you about some of the submissions I made to various publishers.  I once wrote a short SF story called 'The Key to Heaven's Gate.'  I thought I had a pretty good story.  Now, when you submit a piece to publishers, you always steel yourself for rejection; that's just the way of life for a writer.  Usually, when you get a rejection, it's just a standard slip, and I had many of those for this particular story.  Then one day, I got a very personalised rejection.  The editor in question sent me a two page email, absolutely trashing my story.  He hated it.  After so many rejections topped by this outburst, I decided I obviously wasn't being objective about this particular story, so I filed it away and forgot about it.  Until a couple of years later, when I spotted a publisher that I thought might accept it.  I submitted it, and got a letter from the editor who said he loved it!  He positively gushed over it.  They published, and 'The Key to Heaven's Gate' won the editor's choice award, and went on to be included in a 'best of' paperback anthology.  That was just the first time I realised what a lottery the submissions game is.

Then there was the thing with my novel 'Blood Brothers'.  This novel got past various junior editors and got to the final committee to decide which novels were going to be published that year by one particular publisher.  I was copied in on an email that explained why the novel was rejected.  The senior editor had said, 'this guy can really write,' and 'this is a brilliant story that will sell' ...but... They couldn't get on with all the bad language.  The central characters in Blood Brothers are of a similar background to myself; lower working class from the North of England.  I know I have got the dialogue bang on the money, so I just had to laugh this rejection off.

I think what really tipped me over the edge into self-publishing, though, was some publishers' submission guidelines.  I had become used to publishers demanding certain word counts, and certain content.  I was mildly frustrated with guidelines that demanded certain paragraph lengths.  But then one set of guidelines I read demanded that there should only be one space after a full stop, not two, and any submissions that used the two space format would be deleted without being read.  The next publisher I looked at demanded the two space format.  What is wrong with these people?  We are talking about STORIES here.  It was at that point I decided to self-publish.

The point is that, as a writer, as well as being strongly self-critical, you have to have a certain amount of confidence in what you do, and not be bullied into watering it down.  You cannot write by committee.  Digital self-publishing has opened up a cost-free avenue for writers who want to stand on their own two feet.  It has given creative power back to the authors, who now have to live and die purely on their own personal standard of creativity and professionalism.

Do you see self-published e books as the future of published mass market fiction?

I think it's a no brainer.  Kindle has done for books what iTunes has done for music.  The future is here.

How many books have you written (novels or novellas)?

I've got eleven e books available on Amazon at present - a mix of novellas, short story collections, a poetry collection, and one humongous novel, Blood Brothers.

How many short stories have you written?

Oh, blimey.  Countless.  I still have a sizeable back catalogue of unpublished works.  I love the short story format, and I kind of look to people like Raymond Carver as true masters of the craft, an ideal of quality to aspire to.  I like to write short stories between the first and second drafts of longer projects.  It helps me get some distance and objectivity on a long project that might have been years in the making.

Tell us about The Darkness at Fishersbridge. How much did H.P. Lovecraft’s work inspire you with this story?

I kind of have a love-hate relationship with H. P. Lovecraft.  I think the Cthulhu Mythos is one of the greatest and most enduring concepts in the horror genre.  Despite August Derleth's well intended but plain wrong attempts to sweeten the Mythos, it remains an utterly chilling concept - one that speaks straight to the fears about who and what we are.  It seems like a lot of writers want to add their bit to it, and even the ones that deny certain stories are part of the Mythos... Well you read the stories, and you just know, don't you?  However, as much as I am awed by the power and scope of Lovecraft's vision, I sometimes find his prose verges on the unreadable.  That's such a shame, because it will put some people off.  But, yes, The Darkness at Fishersbridge was my way of saying thank you to H. P. Lovecraft for his wonderful ideas.  This story was also one of my first attempts at taking the idea of an 'unreliable narrator' to the ultimate degree.  I think that, by the end of the story, that method actually increases the horror factor exponentially, which is kind of counter intuitive, but there you are.

Do you see any significant differences between British horror fiction and American horror fiction?

I think the two are converging, to an extent.  Mass media and globalisation is making most new Western literature kind of transatlantic in style.  We've seen this trend in TV and movies for a while now, and it was inevitable that literature would start to go that way.  What will remain different is the unique cultural signposts that still differentiate the two nations.  I remember someone telling my that my Chapelbank trilogy was quintessentially English, which I thought was nice.  The kids in those stories say things like 'terrar' and they sneak around the back of the working men's club, and so on.  They wouldn't even know what Baseball was.  These kinds of things are the touchpoints of national identity for characters.  But in terms of structure and so on, I think there is less difference than ever between the two in literature.  The difference in structure is also narrowing on the screen, but not quickly enough for my liking.  I'm not a fan of old school British theatricality.

Have your political or philosophical views shaped your writing in some way?

I actually think the greater effect has been the other way around! Back in the nineties, when I started to have a go at writing, I was a lapsed Christian, and full of guilt and hang ups.  These days, as I'm sure many people are aware, I am a highly vocal atheist, anti-theist and rationalist.  That has been one heck of a journey, and would never have happened were it not for my writing.

The thing about writing is that it's all about the characters, and that forces you to examine yourself, the people around you, and human nature itself.  When I first started writing, I realised very quickly that I wasn't good enough at it.  This was going to take work.  I hadn't made the best of my education as a youth, and I was painfully aware of my shortcomings intellectually.  I went back to college, and took an A level in English language, and from there I really got the taste for learning.  It was all about getting that thinking muscle working again.  I remember feeling quite intimidated by the intellectual punch some of my friends carried, and I was very self-conscious.  I took a few writing courses, but found them to be too lightweight.  They didn't give me the depth of  understanding I required.  Reading Robert Mckee's Story helped, but that just fired me up to learn more.  All the while, my critical thinking skills were developing, and that led me to put writing on the back burner a little for three years, while I took a degree in Literature with The Open University.  As part of the degree, I took a module in philosophy, and that opened my eyes to rational atheism.  All the doubts I'd had about religion crystallised through that learning process, and I was finally able to shrug off years of guilt-tripping.  I'd already been gradually moving toward atheism, but now I had the tools to intellectually justify my thought process.  It was an incredibly liberating time.  And it was no surprise of course to find themes of religious conflict informing my writing.

I came out of university with a 'distinction' first class honours degree in Literature.  Studying lit gives a very different perspective to studying creative writing.  Both have informed my writing, and I now feel more in control of what I'm doing than ever before.  Studying lit also ignited my interest in poetry, which was a totally unexpected, but welcome, bonus.

Which writers have inspired you the most?

Well, I've already mentioned King and Lovecraft.  But for the most part, I tend to like certain books rather than follow certain writers, and it's not always horror.  I've enjoyed most (not all) of Ian McEwan's work.  I think 'On Chesil Beach' is a masterpiece of slow-burning suspense, and I would have to say his writing has probably been a more recent influence on me.  I would have to point to two other novels that have left a very lasting impression on me: Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' and Irwin Shaw's 'Rich Man, Poor Man'.  But I've also been influenced by the early lyric writing of David Bowie, and I am a great admirer of the work of David Lynch, who has definitely been a big influence.

Name some of your favorite horror books.

Okay, here goes.  'Firestarter', 'Christine', 'The Dead Zone' and 'Hearts in Atlantis' from King.  'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'At the Mountains of Madness' from Lovecraft.  Brian Lumley's 'Necroscope' series is sensational, despite some of Lumley's quirky dialogue.  This is how vampires should be written.  I also enjoyed his 'Psychomech' series.

Name some of your favorite horror movies.

Well, this might be controversial, but I love the American remake of 'The Ring'.  Absolutely love it, way better than the original.  'The Mothman Prophecies' is another with a similar vibe that I really enjoyed.  Hitchcock's 'Psycho' will always be there, and I would class 'Silence of the Lambs' as a horror, which I also love.  And at the risk of contradicting what I've said about theatricality, I can't help it, I just love Branagh's 'Frankenstein'! Stuff like David Lynch's movies, and maybe 'Donnie Darko' veer into the type of psychological horror I enjoy.

What are your current projects?

I'm currently working a a major novel, titled 'Abominations'.  This is a pretty ambitious project, and will end up a similar length to 'Blood Brothers' - about 160k words.  'Abominations' starts off as a mystery with supernatural connotations, before suddenly screaming off down the route of pure horror. It's been a real challenge so far, because it's such a huge, complex story that will just have people gripped right from the off.  I'm enjoying writing this immensely.  I expect if to be published late 2014 or early 2015.  I will have some more short works released before then, though.

Please in your own words write a paragraph about yourself & your work.

Writing is just absolutely central to my life.  I put my readers at the heart of everything I do, I want to wow them.  I've given myself this mission statement:  I want to write stories that people will want to read at least three times.  The first reading, hopefully, they will enjoy a good story.  Afterwards, I want that story to linger at the back of their minds.  I want them to be thinking, after a while, 'Hang on a minute, I thought I understood that bit in chapter three, but now I've finished the book, I think it might mean something else...'  I want my readers to be drawn back for a second reading, where they pick up the hidden story; the submerged part.  If they crack that, I would expect they would want to read it a third time, with all the pieces laid out, as it were.

Check out some of Darren's books at Amazon