Is it ambition or is it excess or is it insanity? Perhaps the last truly epic film, the making of which is as fascinating as the feature itself. It’s film that begs to be seen on a big screen with the sound ramped up. It’s trippy and frightening, and it recreates the hell of the Vietnam war so vividly you might almost believe you were watching some weird kind of documentary. Coppola experienced his own war throughout on a shoot that was meant to take six weeks and ballooned to sixteen months; he was rewriting scenes on the lam, had fired Harvey Keitel and saw his replacement, Martin Sheen, promptly suffer a heart attack. The helicopters they were borrowing from the Philippine government kept being recalled. And to top it off, Marlon Brando arrived on set grossly overweight – not the wiry ex-Green Beret that had been envisaged – having failed to learn his lines.
Nevertheless, it’s rammed with fantastic performances (Robert Duvall’s Kilgore and Dennis Hopper’s frantic photojournalist both stand-out) and memorable set pieces. The growing sense of dread as the gunship Erebus pushes deeper into the heart of darkness is palpable. Brando, wreathed in shadow and spouting random lines of improvised dialogue, is wildly OTT, but you cannot take your eyes off him.
Virtually indistinct from the excellent Cormac McCarthy novel, this Coen brothers film introduces you to a monster to equal, if not best, anything seen on the big screen before. Hannibal Lecter? Anton Chigurh makes you look like the pussy cat you are. A wonderful, brave film, with great swathes of silence. It is tense and unconventional and worthy of every award thrown at it. I loved the earlier Coen films such as Fargo, Miller’s Crossing and especially Barton Fink, which would have made this list if NCFOM had not been made, but this film is the first where their weird sense of humour is sidestepped. This one they play for keeps, one of those films that grabs you by the throat and does not let you go, even after the end credits. All the main characters are played to perfection: take a bow Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and especially Javier Bardem.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Many of us have jobs. Full-time jobs, part-time jobs, weekend jobs, holiday jobs.
I’ve done my fair share of grim jobs. I’ve delivered pizza. I’ve worked in one of the busiest bars in Warrington on New Year’s Eve. I spent one bewildering day trying to sell kitchens. I sorted out an oncology department filing system at a London hospital into three piles: Living, Dead, Dying. I’ve lugged heavy firecheck doors all around a Hackney warehouse. When my dad was an Investigator for a security firm back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was offered the chance to spend my summers between college and university terms working as a security guard, usually on a construction site, for £2.50 an hour (thanks, Dad… why couldn’t you have been a chocolate taster, or the owner of a boutique hotel?). Invariably this would involve sitting in a Portakabin or, if I was unlucky, a car, for up to 16 hours a day, mainly ensuring that kids didn’t come to play in the piles of sand.
One summer I wrote the first draft of a novel and soaked up a very nice tan while ostensibly acting as a deterrent in serge on a patch of waste land off the M56 near Appleton. With hindsight I was lucky to have that job, even though it didn’t pay well, because it gave me huge swathes of time to write, or read, with impunity. I wanted to do nothing but be a writer, and I remember being in a froth of panic at the thought that one day I would probably end up with a proper job that stole the hours I would otherwise spend making things up.
When I did get a proper job, my fears came true and I grew so desperate to get my own fiction written that I set the alarm clock for 6am so I could get some pages down before I went into work.
Now I’ve been lucky enough to write full time for a few years. It’s likely not to be a permanent thing, but I’ll take it where I can. It’s all I really know and what I love. I imagine this cycle of writing and work will continue until I’m too decrepit to know the difference between a pen and a mug of Complan (if indeed I ever did). Essentially, I couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to. It is as much a part of me as my heart or my backbone. I was writing before I realised you could be paid for it, and I think that is key to the kind of writer you eventually become.
Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to the point of this post. In recent times I’ve stumbled upon (what I consider) strange behaviour among established writers, chiefly Jim Crace and Alice Munro. Both have taken the decision to retire from writing, as if it was, you know, just a normal job and not some ravening compulsion. Crace, clearly, is not what you might call a born writer. He considers writing to be something one should be paid to do and believes that once your popularity wanes, you should pack it in. In an interview in 2008 with the Guardian, Crace first broached the subject of his own retirement. An author’s lot is predicated on bitterness, according to him, resulting in “the elderly novelist who may be writing his/her best books but whose day has come and gone. S/he is no longer fashionable and can only find a marginal publisher and command a tiny advance. The book receives few reviews and is ignored by the public. Bitterness.”
Munro’s situation is all the more baffling because previously, in a Paris Review interview, she’d expressed concern at the thought of calling it a day. You get the sense, though, with Munro (who is 81 compared with Crace, in his mid-sixties), that she feels she’s written everything she wanted to write, that she is, in effect, spent. If that’s the case, then good luck to her. I hope to hell that never happens to me.
I contacted two writers I admire immensely – Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub – both huge influences on me as I was developing, and both of an age that in other occupations would see them being handed the gold carriage clock and a goodbye handshake, yet both are still going strong.
Ramsey is as prolific as ever, perhaps even more so. Over a career that spans fifty years, he has published such genre classics as The Face that Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun and The Grin of the Dark as well as hundreds of short stories. This year sees the publication of The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, which is, unless I’m mistaken, his 33rd novel.
“I can’t imagine ever retiring as a writer unless that was somehow enforced, say by an illness that left me unable to write,” Ramsey says. “Ideas – I have notebooks full of them, and some have been lying dormant for years, even decades. Now and then I have a browse of them and often discover how to develop one that failed to inspire me at the time. Not long ago I discovered that my original notes that led to my writing ‘The Companion’ forty years ago are so remote from the actual story that there’s actually a complete other tale to be had of them, and I may well get around to it. As to the future, well, they’d better leave me a pen inside the coffin in case I need to scribble a last tale or two.”
Peter Straub, arguably one of the most influential modern horror writers, is the author of Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon and Koko. Recent books such as lost boy, lost girl and In the Night Room have garnered awards and critical acclaim. His latest novel, A Dark Matter, was described by the Guardian as ‘understated, literary horror, all the more terrifying… for what he keeps from the reader and for his brilliant psychological portraits of innocents caught up in events beyond their control and understanding. Gripping.’
“I’ve never thought for longer than a couple of seconds about retirement,” says Peter, “but Philip Roth retired this year, and if he can do it, I certainly can. I guess the real motive would arrive one day when I would have to realize that I really was not as good as once I was, and my books really did seem to be growing weaker. For long time now, writing fiction has seemed to be my most dependable way of achieving stability, contentment, inner peace. Yet now I am seventy, and writing has become more difficult, and it goes a lot more slowly. I’d like to think I might have three or four more novels in me. The presence of ideas or the lack of ideas does not trouble me, because I almost never have ‘ideas’. I spin everything out of its own materials. This is a very absorbing process. However, the certainty of embarrassing myself in public would be a powerful incentive to walk away from my desk.
“I don’t think one can think of writing in the same way one would medicine or the law, or any conventional business. It is riskier and scarier, also less tangible than most occupations. And you have to spend so much time alone. It is a very strange, small, displaced aperture through which to see and experience the world, also to explain what you find in the process. On the other hand, it is so unimaginably rich.”
Ten years ago I interviewed Christopher Priest, and at the time he said something about writing that resonated with me. He said writing was like ‘drinking water’. It was just something he did, natural and essential to his life. He could no longer stop doing it than he could stop breathing. And most writers I know feel the same way. Because how do you switch off the tap? Or is it a case of no longer answering the ‘What if?’ questions, ignoring the moments when you think: that would make a good story. Turning away from the fantasies, refusing to engage with the voices in your head – to me (at the moment) that sounds more like death than the real thing.
October 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.
A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.
Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.
That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen. Newsflash. This just in. The body, as yet unidentified, was found on wastelands behind Manchester’s southern cemetery…
Dad puts his fork down. On the phone. He’s here then, he says. He’s come over to Manchester.
I know he’s talking about the Ripper. It’s all you hear about in the school playgrounds. Brian Trent got into trouble with the headmistress for starting a game called Dead, where he pretended to be Jack, felling girls, and how many could he get on the floor before the coppers stopped him? Manchester is twenty miles from here. If the Ripper can leave his hunting grounds of Bradford and Leeds to travel across the Pennines, then he can nip along the M62 to Warrington. Mum will walk home alone this night.
This is where much of it started for me, this business of horror and crime. Siamese genres that share the same diabolical heart. A faceless killer with a northern accent. Pictures of policemen on their knees in allotments and alleyways combing the area for clues. Everything black and cold and filthy. Desperate women torn apart on cobblestones. Doorstep horror. A wraith evading capture and grinning at the plods in their abject failure.
My parents were both in the police force. Mum left when she became pregnant with me. Good was instilled in me as intractably as the marrow in my greenstick bones. I behaved. I was shy to the point of becoming wallpaper. Spock hair. National Health Service glasses. If it weren’t for the blue serge and silver pips in my family I’d have been bully fodder. As it was, I was overlooked. I witnessed casual violence in the playground, observed the rhythms and reactions. I learned about preemptive strikes, grudges, breaking points. Some of these kids would go on to be ugly criminals. There was a rapist among them, it turned out. There was a murderer and a victim. It was a rough old school.
I lived in a pub, too. Once Dad had finished his twenty-five-year stint and picked up his carriage clock and index-linked pension, he did the usual where bobbies were concerned and took over management of the Wheatsheaf Hotel on Orford Lane. What might a quiet boy deep into solitude see here? Time, gentlemen, please. Gentlemen. Oh, really? I’ve seen drunk men threaten each other with the bare fangs of broken beer glasses. Hiked skirts, dirty thumbs hooking into knicker elastic against back alley garbage hoppers. Dad with a black eye and a split lip thanks to a “gentleman” who took umbrage at a request to drink up now, please.
I found echoes of all of this in the black novels of Derek Raymond and waded into the filth after the unnamed Detective Sergeant to the dank, stinking hellholes where bad men met their ends. I fell for the grand guignol of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and the existential tension in James Sallis’s Death Will Have Your Eyes. Later, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which was punishing but magnificent, offering up great swathes of my own childhood panic in its red, steaming fists.
All of this has directed where I go in everything I write, but most of it comes from the lonely places from which I viewed the world, and those that I disappeared to inside myself.
Eight years old and I wanted to make sure Mum would be all right walking across Lovely Lane at closing time. Imagining her wrapped in her coat, chilled by that Warrington winter, while fear, and maybe something else, hastened her heels. It still frightens me now. More so than the endless scrutiny of faces as men poured out of the factories at quitting time : Is it him? Is it him? Is it him? More than the “I’m Jack” tape. More than the conjecture about what the Ripper did to his victims in the blanket secrecy — details jealously kept by the police — that followed his attacks.
People ask me why I’ve made the transition from horror to crime and I think: “Transition? Seriously? What the hell are you talking about?”
Forget the cliché-ridden voiceover that sounded as if it was phoned in by Harrison Ford. Forget too the happy ending with its bolted-on footage from The Shining. Go for the Director’s Cut. Lean, moody, brutal and brilliant. SF-noir at its most seductive: grimily gorgeous, with a match-made-in-heaven score by Vangelis. I remember being too young to see this at the cinema when it was on at the ABC in Warrington, but I was smitted by the poster (Han/Indy was in it!) and stared at it every time we drove past, desperate to know what the film was about. Quite how it wasn’t a massive hit from day one perplexes me. Maybe early 80s Britain, bruised and battered after the riots and a pervasive mistrust of the police, wasn’t ready for that kind of reflective vision. Not so much futuristic as right here, right now, or at least a glimpse at the shape of things to come.
Having watched this and Marathon Man and discovering they were written by the same guy, William Goldman, and not only that but he wrote novels as well, I tracked down many of his books and pigged out on them one summer (I even read Tinsel, for Chrissakes). This film remains his masterpiece, however. A confection, yes, but what an achievement. A perfect film, from the brilliant opening, that segue from sepia to colour, the incredible chemistry between Newman and Redford and the devastating denouement (every time I watch it I think, this time, they’ll get away this time). All students of screenwriting should scrutinise this film.
Okay, so it has touches of horror in the shape of that desiccated rabbit… and Ben Kingsley’s turn as sweary psychopath Don Logan puts him very firmly in the human monster category, but this film is more like a modern-day farce. Ray Winstone is the ex-pat crim persuaded to do One Last Job™ and Amanda Redman plays a damaged gangster moll. There is a vein of black comedy running all the way through it, much of it courtesy of Ian McShane as another psychotic, the restrained obverse of Kingsley’s nutjob. Magnificent performances throughout.
I tend to measure my day-to-day progress on a project by the number of words I’ve accrued. It’s easy, straightforward, quantifiable. You know where you stand. If you’re in the hunt for an agent or a publisher, the likelihood is their guidelines will tell you you need to write between 70 – 100,000 words (probably more if you’re writing a genre novel). So you know that if you eke out 1000 words every day for three months – hey presto! – you’re in novel territory. It’s a handy guide, but it can also be somewhat punishing if you’re not careful. Your ‘segments’, if you don’t sand the edges, can have ‘thousand-word chunkiness’, for want of a better description. The joins might show. Also, you feel in thrall to the limit you set yourself, so for example, you might dash through a thousand words and think, that’s my work for the day done, where’s the beach? You switch off. Even if you decide to stick around and do more, internally, you’ve clocked off. Or you might find you’re having one of those days when the words come slower than a legless turtle in a puddle of treacle.
But it’s difficult to get out of that mindset, especially when you consider that many of the legends that went before us worked in the same way. Although not all of them enjoyed it. Graham Greene stopped writing as soon as he hit the 500 word point – his manuscripts are dotted with handwritten numbers where he has counted his output, eager to hit his mark so he could go off to play Russian Roulette or spend the afternoon with a prostitute. What are the alternatives for a writer, someone who is eager to amass a clutch of pages at the end of the day to prove that some marvellous alchemy has occurred?
I asked Adam Nevill, my old editor at Virgin and a superb writer of horror in his own right (check out Apartment 16, The Ritual and Last Days), what his methods were, remembering a discussion we’d once had regarding word counts and work routines, and he sent me this pithy response:
“My lack of awareness of the word count led to a situation while writing LAST DAYS when I noticed I’d hit 140K on the first draft, and remembered there was something about a 120K word length in the contract. And I still had a fair portion of the story to write too. This could have had a major impact on the publisher’s costings for pagination with a print run, so I went hot and cold and informed my editor, who said it was fine and 120K was only a guide (just as well!). The book eventually hit 160K. But that really revealed to me just how little attention I pay to word volume these days. So, I don’t word count and sense that I have harboured a vague prejudice against the practice over the last few years. So answering this question has made me think a bit harder about why I don’t observe a word count now.
“Though it’s not always been the case. I once wrote nine series fiction novels under another name, one per year, to strict deadlines and they could not exceed 80K words or fall much below 75K, so I once watched the counter like a hawk and it was an uncomfortable experience because my tendency was to either go over 80K or under 75K. After one carefully revised and balanced novel hit 86K I was asked to cut “something out” (preposterous!). Also, I remember closing on 70K and knowing another 10K would not be sufficient, and once thinking a story should stop at 70K. Nonsensical. My problem with word limits is similar to my problem with word counts, in that stories cannot be told in the same amount of words, just as they can’t all be told in the same way, and neither can the individual scenes I hope to write in each writing session. So I can’t recall word counting on a novel since 2005 and no word limit has ever been imposed on my horror novels. Instinctively, I always know when a scene, and eventually a story, is finishing. And as every year goes by my inner reader gets better and better at judging pace, so my internal pace measurer is more useful than a word counter. If I counted words, I suspect that going under target on a poor day at my desk would create a lingering indigestion.
“So I approach writing a novel incrementally; I keep in mind what I need to achieve in each new scene, scene by scene, and each new scene has the life and implications of the last scenes within its DNA. But how I reach the end of each respective scene has no relation to the length of the scene in actual words. So I judge the progress of what I am writing, as I go along, by what each scene achieves in relation to the entire story that has past, and what I anticipate is still to come. Each session’s writing is judged by how strong a scene feels and if it works for the story. If a scene comes out quickly, I tend to go away and think on what it means to the next part of the story, rather than blasting straight into the next scene because I feel I am on a roll. So an afternoon or evening thinking about the next scene I need to write, and making notes, is more useful to me than writing continuously. Ultimately, I also don’t trust anything I’ve written until I’ve been through it like a customs official goes through a car that smells of cannabis at a ferry port; the final draft usually occurs around the last month of a deadline, so how many words go down each day until the end is largely irrelevant to the way I think about putting a novel together.
“Writing is an incredibly intense experience too, so I would not want to suffer a conflict about hitting word targets, or find another reason to flagellate myself on the office floor. If I am in the zone I write more; if I take a long time to get into the zone, or life overruns my position, I write less. I always tend to revisit a scene that I am dissatisfied with at the start of the very next session on a first draft, so I don’t need to know how many words are in that scene, because it’s going to be changed. Through good and bad days I eventually finish a novel to my satisfaction and I make sure I end a book feeling excited, as well as feeling a trepidation at having taken risks. I don’t think, wow, I’ve worked so hard I’ve written 160K words this year. I’ve seen a few people on Facebook announce that they have hit one million words in one year; I’m still not entirely sure what that proves.
“On good days the pages come and I lose myself in them, and eventually every part of the story, over successive drafts, will have to be rewritten on a good day; that’s my assurance and word counting would miss the point for me, because volume is subordinate to value, and there is always another way of writing something you know is no good, and everything has to be rewritten. I suspect I actually write better because I don’t count words. Who wants to run a marathon with a stone in their shoe? We’re all different.
“I suppose my equivalent of word counting is an on-going, internal time and motion study. I do reflect on time a lot; how much time in a day, and even a week, I am able to write unimpeded (usually as I am trying to sleep) in lieu of my eventual deadline. I evaluate my progress on the quality of the concentration I had in each session, and how much time I claimed for writing, and how well the scene turned out, not the amount of words that came or did not come. I also often write long hand too, so I couldn’t really count the words anyway.
“So my cold-sweat fear is a valid one: not having enough time to do my best on a book within a year, which is the amount of time I have to write each new book. It’s a good chunk of time. But the terror is good because it makes me find enough time to do my best to finish the best book I can. This is why I more or less stick to one novel a year that I can work on nearly every day, and two short stories each year. Not an arbitrary objective; just the way it has worked out since 2009. This work rate gives me a sense that this schedule is manageable and that I am maintaining quality control. Before I was contracted for one book a year, I didn’t look at the calendar either; I’d know when it was done. So quality writing time and sufficient preparation time is something I do measure mentally on a work in progress, (I would guess for the same motive that some writers count words), because it’s those two things that will decide whether a book is any good or whether it risks failure, not the book’s length. Let’s say I could write 100K words in three months; without putting it to the test, I know it would never be as good as the 100K I could write over a year.
“Short stories are a different case, and most editors seem to want stories at 5K. I struggle to write less than 7K on any story and have even panicked when I notice I have hit 10K. It’s like everything starts evolving into a novel…
“I bet Conrad wished I’d looked at the word counter as I wrote this.”
Another friend, and writer I admire, Michael Marshall (Smith), who is responsible for such novels as The Straw Men, The Intruders and We Are Here, has this to say (excuse the bum-numbing length of his comment):
“I never worry about quantity because I know that, when I’ve worked out what the hell I’m doing, the words and paragraphs will flow easily. Prose and characters seldom if ever give me any trouble once I’ve found the backbone to hang them on. I know I can write 3-4k in a day if I know what I’m doing, so I don’t mind – in fact, I thank God for – the days on which I write seven words, but finally get a sense of what’s supposed to happen next… My writing process is like a very drunk man trying to cross a motorway on foot: long stretches of weaving, watchful stasis, interspersed with chaotic dashes.”
Many thanks to Michael and Adam for their time…
Word count matters, obviously, otherwise we’d all write Proustian novels that, well, never ended. There’s some instinct within (or more likely contractual obligation enforced upon) a writer that helps to portion a story, give it its rhythms, its peaks and troughs, creates a narrative arc that rises and falls and finds a natural end point within that magical 70-100,000 word zone. It would probably look rather beautiful if you plotted it on a graph. The end result is the important thing, a novel that hopefully reads well and contains all the good things we look for in a story.
For the acting, the photography of LA at night, the thrilling bank heist, that mesmerising exchange in the café, and a final scene that takes the breath away. I never grow tired of watching this. And I want to live in Neil’s beachside property…
I’ve been thinking recently about the influences that have helped shape me as a writer since I began trying to do it seriously, over <cough> twenty-five <cough> years ago. I’d like to share with you the books and films that have made their mark on me. Interestingly (or not, depending on your point of view), much of the media I consider gold star stuff has little, if anything, to do with the genre I tend to favour when I have ideas for novels and short stories. I tend to consider this as an advantage. Obviously I treat my horror darlings with reverence. I’d say that an all-inclusive top ten would contain at least five great horror films – Don’t Look Now, Alien, The Wicker Man, King Kong (1933, natch) and, towering above them all, The Shining, which is quite possibly my all-time number one. My interpretation of what is a horror film will differ from yours, of course. I think Alien is a horror film, for example. Others will see it as a science fiction film. There might even be those who make a case for it as an erotic drama…
A writer, even one with a (spit, sneer) genre bent, should have an omnivorous diet. That said, though there are some films I love to death (the Nolan Batman films, The Lord of the Rings, pretty much anything by Pixar… Toy Story 3 <sob>) this is an animation- and trilogy-free list.
10 – BARRY LYNDON* (1975)
Just… phenomenal. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Stanley Kubrick is my favourite director (my youngest son’s middle name is Stanley). Ryan O’Neal I’d caught before in, um, What’s Up Doc? (actually, not bad), A Bridge Too Far and The Driver. The film chronicles Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall from loveable Irish rogue to tragic physical wreck. Barry Lyndon is languorous and lyrical and decadent and it DOES NOT GIVE A STUFF. The night-time indoor shots are jaw-dropping. Apparently Kubrick used super-fast lenses developed by NASA to shoot scenes lit only by candles. If you haven’t seen it, set aside three hours of your life and wallow in a gorgeously-shot epic, but know this: with Kubrick’s passing, no studio will ever dare make a film like this ever again.
* Obviously this is a list that has changed frequently over the years and also isn’t particularly in ascending order… After I post the No. 1 film I’ll also add a catch-all ‘Bubbling Under’ post that will list all the other films I admire.