Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Writers talk about writing: Gary McMahon

(Once you've finished reading what Gary's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

Next up in the series of interviews here is Gary McMahon, a lover, a fighter and a Warlord of Atlantis. His short fiction has received acclaim from various quarters, and his novels seem to be going down quite well, too. He is both relieved and amused that he’s still getting away with whatever the hell it is he does. You can find Gary's blog, and much more about his stories, at

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

The Concrete Grove (published by Solaris) is about crime, debt, sacrifice, redemption and the monsters created by our society. It’s set on a rundown council housing estate that might just be a doorway to another world.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

Pretty Little Dead Things and Dead Bad Things (both published by Angry Robot): very grim novels that are equal parts crime and supernatural horror. Think David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet meets William Peter Blatty’s Legion, throw in a pinch of Angel Heart and a sliver of Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game, and you’re about half way there.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

Apart from a way to fashion some kind of bludgeon out of lift parts, I’m currently working on the second Concrete Grove novel (titled Silent Voices) and a screenplay.

You're a Sunderland AFC supporter, so grim and unrelenting horror is second nature to you. But what scares you most in fiction?

Nobody knows true horror like a Sunderland fan...the horror, the horror! For me, insanity, old age and demonic possession are the Big Scary Things – and regarding the latter, I think it’s probably a metaphor for loss of identity. These things terrify me. I think it’s the notion of losing control, yet being utterly unaware that you’re doing so that turns my knees to piss. I mean, how do you reason with that?

Is there anything in horror that is done to death - so mined out that it loses the ability to scare any more? Or is it always possible to add an original twist?

I used to think that vampires had been all used up, but lately I’ve read some interesting and rather brilliant vampire fiction (The Passage, Department 19, Let The Right One In) that’s managed to convince me there’s a lot more to be said on the subject. I do believe that zombies have become a tired theme – that whole sub genre seems to have reached some kind of critical mass, where the genuinely good stuff is outweighed by some truly awful rubbish. And I say this as a man who wrote a zombie novel! (Hungry Hearts, published by Abaddon Books.) I honestly believe that John Ajvide Lindqvist’s brilliant Handling the Undead was almost the Last Word on zombie fiction...somebody is going to have to do something pretty damned special to top that.

You've written many short stories, and recently blogged about short fiction being in your blood. What is it about the short story that keeps you coming back time after time?

These days it’s the brevity and intensity of short fiction that attracts me both as a reader and a writer. I love the way that a short story can latch onto a mood, a moment, or a single metaphor, and get right under your skin (and that of the characters in the story). A novel requires more commitment; it has a different set of rules. Short fiction is like being stabbed quickly by a stranger in a narrow alley, whereas a novel is more like a prolonged knifing. So to speak. (God, that sounds insane...)

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?

I’ve been told that I do atmosphere well, and I think that I’m pretty good with characters – I see all my fiction as being about the characters, and they tend to shape the story. I’d love to be able to do dialogue better (although, I’ve also been told I’m also good at that). To be honest, I’m constantly trying to do it all better. I see the craft of writing as a constant honing and development of whatever core skill we might possess.

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

Yes, I can. I was off school, suffering from a cold or something, and I didn’t have a book handy. So I picked up one of my sister’s books – some short girly novel about a young kid who wrote poetry. Afterwards, I decided I’d try to write a poem of my own. I produced something called “After the Battle”, which was set during WW2 on a battlefield after a big, apocalyptic battle. Totally out of character, I entered the poem for the school magazine. It was published, and went on to win the prize for the best thing published in the magazine that year. I got a carrier bag full of sweets. I can only remember the first few lines:

After the battle, all is silent
After the battle, so bloody and violent
Bodies lie upon the ground
But in death they utter no sound

Give me a break; I was only thirteen.

Do you have a book or story that you're very fond of, but you think should get more attention from the world than it has.

I have a whole book full of them! I honestly believe that my first collection, Dirty Prayers, contains some of the best fiction I’ll ever produce. It’s ambitious, challenging, probably even slightly pretentious, and hopefully has a lot to say about how we all live today. I think only about 100 people bought a copy.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

You know what – I don’t have a clue. Nobody does; that’s part of the problem. Personally, I still believe in the old fashioned publishing model of having a publishing house invest a lot of time, money and effort into getting your book out there in the best form possible. It’s like a filter. The Ebook market is currently awash with barely edited garbage written by authors with no previous track record, so the good stuff is hard to find.

What book do you most wish that you had written?

A Child Across The Sky by Jonathan Carroll. I could name about fifty more.

You're publishing ebooks now - have you learned anything in that process?

Well, I have three or four out there right now, I think. I’m being very cautious. The main thing I’ve learned is that those Amazon Ebook charts are complete bullshit – one of my Ebooks hit the top 100 of some random chart by selling about 25 copies. The other thing I’ve learned is that a lot of people are desperate to give their work away for free in the hope of hitting these essentially pointless charts.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

I try my best. I attend conventions, sit on panels, do readings and signings, and spend a fair amount of time networking on Facebook and Twitter...I’m not sure if any of this is effective, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. It’s important, if only to get out there and meet potential readers.

What is it that really pushes your buttons as a reader? (Voice, action, sense of place etc).

The prose. Always the prose. I love tight, stripped down, sparse prose. Good prose gives me wood. Voice is important, too: someone like Stephen King or Michael Marshall Smith can grab hold of me and keep me right where they want me for hours.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Never, ever quit.

If you could tell an aspiring piece of writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

The cream always rises. It doesn’t. Sometimes the cream just curdles because nobody notices it.

Are you 'out' as a writer of fiction with work colleagues/family, and if so, what reaction did you get?

Yeah, I started telling people a few years ago. Half of them think it’s cool. A quarter of them don’t understand. The rest of them seem to be afraid of me.

Gibbons or tigers? (NB this question is to help me in compiling my List of People Who Are Wrong).

Gibbons. Obviously. Simians are nature’s stand-up comedians. Personally, though, I’m more of a chimp man.

Make up your own question here. And answer it.

Q: Have you ever tasted human flesh?
A: Yes

Meticulous research is both enjoyable and important / what's the point in writing fiction if you can't just make stuff up - discuss.

I find research a bit of a chore, to be honest. Sometimes it’s essential, but I’m lucky enough that with the kind of stories I write, living life is the research. I’ve spent 42 years researching the novels I’m writing now, and there are still so many stories left to tell.


  1. Great interview, really enjoyed that. But you can't do a Q & A like: 'Have you ever tasted human flesh? Yes.' and leave it there. Come on, man, 'fess up! Was it a char-grilled charva? A toasted teacher? Did you bite your nails too far down and munch on your finger tips? We need to know!

  2. :-)

    Thank you, Julie!

    Ah, the human flesh thing...well, I, erm, kind of cut off a slice of my finger by mistake when I was chopping somehting in the kitchen. So I, erm, kind of, erm, fried it and ate it.

    Bloody hell...that makes me sound like some kind of nascent serial killer, doesn't it? ;-)

  3. No, not at all.

    Can I ask though, did you have it with fava beans and a nice chianti?

  4. My sympathy - I tend to be more of a finger grater myself. Mind you, my best one was done when I was a grocer - took a chunk out of a finger with the blade on the bacon slicer, which I was running without guards while I cleaned it. Ouch! Couldn't bear to so much as look at it - smothered it in Savlon and wrapped it up. I was lucky it didn't fester. (And for location spotters, that was in the old Laws Stores on Sea Road - now the Spar, I believe.)