Wednesday, 22 August 2012

#47 The Fury: The Drunk Author Interview

Today we’re going to be talking about the new Young Adult zombie novel, The Fury. In The Fury, our heroes discover that, whenever people are within a certain range of them, they’re overwhelmed by the desire to murder them horribly. It’s like a zombie move, but after the zombies kill you they go back to making the tea, washing the car, delivering papers, etc.

I arranged to meet up with Alexander Gordon Smith to discuss how he wrote the book, where he got his inspiration from, and what he thought about exposing children to such horrible and violent stories. Because I know Gordon from a while back (his middle name is actually his “first” name, because he likes to be awkward like that) we ended up having quite a few drinks first. Surprisingly the recording came out as pretty listenable.

Download Part One of the Interview Here: In the first part of our interview (which you can also read below) we talked about where Gordon steals his ideas from, and why he decided upon the premise of The Fury, as well as writing horror for children, and the really quite terrifying real life genesis of the idea behind The Fury.

Then I bought another round.

Download Part Two of the Interview Here: In the second part of our interview I ask Gordon about his Fury survival strategy (I once again make an impassioned argument for the shovel), we talk about our favourite zombie movies and paranormal versus scientific zombies and the importance of rules in horror, all while we become steadily more inebriated.

If listening to drunk people talk about horror fiction doesn't sound like your idea of fun, I've transcribed the first part of the interview below:

Gordon, you’re a massive plagiarist. Who’ve you been stealing from?
Everybody I can. I think as we were chatting about earlier being a writer you tend to plagiarise pretty much as many people as you can. Everything I like you try and recycle in some fashion. But as The Fury is a zombie book I’ve taken every single zombie think that I loved which is pretty much every single zombie thing ever, and used it somewhere in the story.

I’ve tried to put my own spin on it but I feel like when you’re writing in a genre you love you’re standing on the shoulders of the people who came before you. I’d like to think one of these days someone will stand on my shoulders or my face and write something else.

I noticed that through the course of the book a lot of children die. Why do you hate children?
Oh well, that’s an interesting point. A lot of children do die. And a lot die in my previous series as well. I don’t know, maybe this is some weird subconscious thing? I was bullied a lot as a child... maybe I should see someone about this? I’m not sure...

It is worrying...
I think, I’m a big fan of death in literature and when you’re writing young adult books the percentage of younger characters to older characters is higher than in an adult series so I guess proportionally you’re going to end up killing more kids and teenagers, I guess maybe that’s why!

One of the great things about zombie stories is that you can kill a load of people without it having any consequences legally or morally because they’re zombies.
That’s very true.

In The Fury when you kill the zombies, if you hadn’t killed them and left them alone they would have gone back to being normal people.

Why do you want to take the fun out of murdering zombies?
Well I wanted to throw a new twist on it. I spent ages and ages and ages trying to think of a new way of telling the zombie story because obviously the zombie story has been told so well by so many people and I guess this is why it took me such a long time to write a zombie book because I wanted that twist, I wanted something unique and I don’t know whether this is completely unique, probably not completely unique but the idea that people.... I was thinking about how there’s so many zombie triggers out there, there’s the chemical trigger, the possession trigger, an infinite number of zombie triggers and I just suddenly thought “What if the trigger, the thing that made people zombies was you? And only you. Every time you went near someone they became feral, they became a zombie. That was the thing that drove the book. When you go near people they become zombies but as soon as you go away or they kill you they go back to normal.

This is why I loved writing the book so much because usually in a zombie story it’s the apocalypse, the world is over, but with this one nobody is experiencing it apart from the characters in the book. Everyone else is going about their life as normal. So these characters don’t have anything to fall back on, they can’t say “It’s the apocalypse, let’s just roll with it.” As far as they can see everyone in the world is going about their business, but soon as they go near them, they are the ones who are in effect ruining everything. They’re the spanner in the works. They’re the ones who turn everyone around them into zombies.

I don’t know if I took the fun out of it... well hopefully I didn’t take the fun out of it! But I think it’s quite fun where... everyone’s seen that thing where your mum is a zombie, y’know, Shaun of the Dead kind of thing and this is really interesting because when you kill your mum when she’s a zombie you’re not really killing your mum. But if you kill your mum in The Fury you’re actually killing your mum! People will go to her funeral! It’s a weird... I wanted to add something else to it, but it was horrible. I did particularly enjoy writing those bits because it felt more real than, I guess, a zombie story. I felt the whole of The Fury felt more real than a typical zombie book because of this kind of background that people are people, they’re not zombies.
It was a really weird story to write.

GP Taylor has said that young adult books should have some sort age certification on them because they’re getting too scary. Do you agree with him wholeheartedly because your books are so horrible?
Thank you I’ll take that as a complement! The only thing age certificates will do in books is make younger readers want to read the books for older readers. If my books had a 15 certificate I’d get more 12, 13, 14 year old readers, so yes I think it’s a great idea!

But you know, I think this is the thing about horror. It is a horrible book, the prologue of the book is one of the most distressing things I’ve ever written, because it was quite shocking when I was writing it, but y’know, I like to think that the core of the books, the same as with the Furnace books, the core of the book is heroism, the core of the book is hope, the core of the book is humanity. That’s what I love about horror, horror brings out those things. You never see heroism like you do in a horror story.

I think the worse things get the more good you see in people. I honestly think that about The Fury, that if a 12, 13 year old boy or girl reads The Fury then yes, horrible things happen but I hope they’ll learn something about themselves, something about their own strengths.

It’s the same as Bettelheim’s argument that fairy tales really do make very young children feel more confident about their abilities. I think horror as the same effect on teenagers, because being a teenager is incredibly difficult. I remember being a teenager and I remember hating it, and I read a lot of horror. Horror made me think- You know what? There are worse things out there. I can do this. I have strength. I’ve seen people defeat greater evils. I’ve totally forgotten what the question was... I’m just ranting now!

Whether children ought to be protected from the horrible things you inflict on them.
I think no. I think booksellers, librarians (especially librarians), teachers, parents will be a guiding force. There are children’s and young adult books that have very adult themes. I don’t put anything rude in my books there’s hardly any swearing, I think there’s different levels of danger in young adult books... I don’t know. I’m not really qualified to answer this question but I think with horror there’s not much of a need to censor books. I think we were talking about this earlier, if a younger reader comes across something in a book that they’re not too sure about I think their default setting is to stop or skip, and that’s a strong impulse in a child. I know I was like that as a kid.

Aside from my general tone of trying to accuse you of being a terrible person, honestly, when you’re writing how much do you think about holding back because of the target audience?
That’s really tricky. I’m not consciously aware of holding back anything. Because with horror the main thing you’re worried about is violence. I don’t really hold back on that at all. Maybe there’s times when you think you’ve gone too far. But the default setting is to leave it in.

There’s been a few times where my editor has said “Let’s get rid of this. Let’s just tone this down a bit” and I’ll always go along with it because you know the editors job is they know the audience better than I do, they know what levels people will expect...

Okay, is there any really disgusting violent gory act that’s been cut out that you can tell us about?
Let me think, with the Fury... No! I think at one point there’s a dead baby in there somewhere, but I think that got left in. I don’t know how that dead baby got in there... she just gate crashed the party...

Any children listening to this, he didn’t write the dead bay, he just crawled in there and it might be under your bed right now...
In the sequel, the Storm, there’s another dead baby...

With the Furnace, my previous series, the violence was almost Tom and Jerry violence. It was very real in the context of the story but in terms of real life you’d never be in a situation like that. Whereas I think The Fury is a bit more visceral, it felt more real when I was writing it.

In the prologue, and even the first few chapters, the thing that gets through is that is so familiar to anyone who’s been to high school, you make that work to the point where when everyone starts trying to kill you it seems like a fairly natural progression...
I was a bit of a loner in high school, found it very difficult to make friends in high school...

But you’re such a jock now Gordon!
I feel I’m a better person now for not trying to fit in the crowd, but that’s a whole different argument, but I have very vivid memories of things, like cycling down the street with the guy who was my best friend at the time and suddenly a bunch of teenagers who were slightly older than us appeared at the end of the road and he cycled up to join them, and as soon as I cycled up he was taking the mickey, pointing... and I think you never feel so alone as you do at high school.

At that age that’s survival technique at the same time...
That’s true, it really is. You learn how to deal with that kind of emotion.

I think the actual inspiration for this book, although I didn’t consciously remember it while writing it, or maybe I did, I don’t know. It’s weird how the brain works.

But when I was in high school... I’m in amazing shape now, obviously...

He’s a golden Adonis!
It’s hard to believe when I was at school I was a bit overweight, and I was in the bottom set at PE, as were most of my friends, and we had this sadistic P.E. teacher called Mr Wren. So if you’re out there Mr Wren thank you for inspiring this book! And his idea of a laugh was this game called Murder Ball.

There’d be thirty kids in this class and we’d be outside in the driving rain or the sleet or the snow or whatever and he’d give the slowest kid in the class (usually me) a rugby ball and everyone would have a turn at doing this, he’d give you a five second head start, and so you’d start running and five seconds later he’d blow the whistle. Now you were pelting across the field as fast as your legs would go, which for me obviously wasn’t very fast, and you’d throw the ball away because it was just slowing you down. After five seconds he’d blow the whistle and every person in that class would come after you. Now their goal was the get the ball back, they wanted the rugby ball, but they’d ignore it, it was forgotten. They wanted you.

They’d be coming across the field after you, you’d feel the ground shake, and these were your friends, the people you hung out with at lunchtime and you’d look over your shoulder and they would have faces like demons, they wanted to kill you. I could never outrun them so after a few seconds I’d be on the floor, 30 people on top of me punching me, biting me, kicking me, putting grass in your mouth so you couldn’t breathe and mud up your nose. I’ve in my life never felt so much like I was going to die as I did when playing murder ball.

And the really weird thing is, it was horrible, I hated it, but as soon as it was someone else’s turn to run with the ball you were there. You would run after them, as soon as they were on the floor you were punching them, you were kicking them... It was weird.

And this is what I love about zombies. You cannot fail to be pulled into a mob like that. It’s amazing how quickly it happens. It’s like a totally different part of your brain takes over.

And I think that, years and years later, that’s what inspired the book.

Monday, 13 August 2012

#46 The Edinburgh Fringe (For Geeks)

I’ve just got back from my holidays! Last week I ticked off an entry on my bucket list and went to see the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. While I was there I noticed several things about Edinburgh. I saw that it was a sunny, tropical paradise. I saw that Edinburgh is one of the few places in the country whose Police Telephone Boxes are still standing, so everywhere you go you feel like you’re being stalked by the TARDIS. Finally, I learned that the Edinburgh Fringe is basically the Internet made flesh. At one point I was in a pub that was little more than a 3D representation of my Twitter feed.

Now, there’s always been a fairly heavy amount of crossover between the works of comedy and geekery. Comedy, after all, makes heavy use of shared references and cultural touchstones, and geeks love nothing more than sharing references and cultural touchstones (unless you’re a male geek and theperson who wants to share is an attractive women, in which case you apparently get weird and resentful because they wouldn’t talk to you in high school).

Whether we’re talking about Spaced, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or enjoying the science bits from comics such as Tim Minchin or Robin Ince, geekery and comedy just keep running into each other. So if you’re a geek and happen to be in Edinburgh this month, there’s plenty of stuff out there for you.

While I was there I didn’t see many genuinely post-apocalyptic based comedy shows (because, quite frankly, they were mostly about the Mayan 2012 apocalypse and I already made the best joke about that).
Quetzalcoatl love, you've pulled!
But there were a few shows that got my geek heart racing. And by a few, I mean these ones:

Full disclosure- while I was in Edinburgh I was sleeping on the Beta Males’ sofa. Of course, I was also paying £10 a night for the privilege, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to give them a shit review if I want to.
However, regardless of my complete journalistic freedom to slag them off, should I choose, Space Race is really very good. Firstly, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s a Quatermass parody. When was the last time you saw a Quatermass parody? Because I honestly can’t think of another (Okay, Wikipedia tells me that both The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half-Hour did Quatermass parodies. Sod off, I never claimed to know everything).

Secondly, the show has some truly great bits of world building going on. The village of Lower Birchley is painted out with all kinds of little details that string the sketches together, and even the publicity fliers fold out to show enough documents, maps and communications to provide the background to a pretty good D&D campaign.

Oh, and also it’s funny. I should probably have mentioned that first, but yes, you will be crying actual tears of laughter.

Incidentally, if that’s not enough for you next weekend the Beta Males will be collaborating with a whole host of other comedians to put on the Midnight Movie Theatre, where a “classic” horror film will be shown interspersed with practical “special” effects, additional scenes and a live “director’s” commentary.

You can’t get much more geeky than a text-based choose your own adventure game. Unless maybe it’s a text based choose your own adventure game performed live by a person with an X-Box 360 controller strapped to his chest.

If you live on the Internet there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across The Dark Room on Youtube. The live show is very similar, except that instead of being shouted at by your laptop screen you’re being shouted at by a very shouty man in the room with you who isn’t afraid to make personal remarks.

To start with John Robertson (the shouty man in the video) will select members of the audience to try and beat the game, until eventually it dissolves into he time-honoured method of decision-making-by-mob-shouting.

The game starts off well, but really comes into its own once you find your way out of the room into the vivid, detailed and magical world that John Robertson has lovingly created.

The show is free, providing you’re able to shuffle past John Robertson at the end ignoring his outstretched money-bucket. However, if you like black-as-pitch story-telling based comedy I’d also recommend going to see his other show The Old Whore for £5, where Robertson tells the true story of how he fucked the queen of England (although if, as he claims, The Old Whore contains clues to beating The Dark Room, I missed them).

Well we should have something post-apocalyptic in here, and if you like a bit of Shakespeare I’d recommend Drunk Tank Productions’ apocalyptic take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This version is very much set in the Fallout-style apocalypse, where the bomb apparently dropped during the 1950s and the human race survives in the underground “Athens” bunker.

Rather than going into the woods, our characters climb out of the bunker in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the “Fairies” are disfigured mutants and Puck is a crazed scientist.

To fit the show into an hour some fairly hefty cuts have been made to Shakespeare’s script, with any action that takes place in Athens being swapped out for black and white newsreel footage. The play manages the job of actually making Shakespeare’s comedy funny, although I’m still a bit miffed they cut Puck’s epilogue.