|An Interview With L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims|
|An interview with Trent Walters|
| May 2002 |
We weren't close friends at school really, both more aware of the other rather than mixing closely. Len left at 16 to gain an apprenticeship in the lapidary trade in London and Mick stayed on to take Advanced level exams before leaving to join Lloyds Bank aged 18.
We had a mutual friend and through him we met up again as we were then part of a large and loosely linked group of boys and girls who were regulars at the Crown And Horseshoes pub in Enfield, as well as others, especially where live music was played. Len played bass in a band, and the friend played drums. Mick was a kind of roadie-cum-bloke who got the drinks in, being totally un-musical.
Where our friendship really took off was by dating the same girl, although at different times. Mick went out with her for a few months before the relationship ended and then Len and she started dating a while later. It proved a turbulent relationship and one night in the pub, after the relationship had ended for good this time, we began philosophising as pints of beer tend to encourage and one thing led to another ad the next thing we knew it was about four in the morning and we had been walking the length and breadth of Enfield putting the world to rights. That's the night we credit with the start of the friendship. (You see, Trent, here we are hedging our bets and claiming it was between the two previously given times! Truth is it was thirty years ago, we had drunk some beer, so who knows what exact time it was? As for bodies, we've both had our share of deaths in life -- if that makes sense, but none we can claim as a direct result of our actions -- unless there is someone out there who has been so affected by reading us that...)
So where does horror fit in? At the same time we were both reading and discovering all manner of horror books in local shops and the excellent market in the Town Square. We would buy dozens. From those came a mutual interest in the subject. Mick can still remember his first horror book, it was Stories To Be Read After Midnight 'edited' by Alfred Hitchcock. Len is pretty sure his was one of the early Pan Books Of Horror.
Len was still playing in the band but was becoming a little disillusioned with it. One night in another pub in Enfield (drink is not an exclusive part of our story but life events do seem to occur with regularity in pubs!) The George, Len produced a hand-written story. It was about 1000 words long and obviously pretty poor but from that start everything else led.
The next week when we met, Mick had a critique of Len's and a story of his own. The pattern began. We would argue for hours about a single line, even a word in our stories, so passionate were we to make them right. We wrote horror, and then gradually we moved into the more gentle style of ghost stories. Inspiration was everywhere. In churchyards, dark lanes, moonlit nights, even sunny days had an aura about them that led to a story idea.
We were collecting books like crazy; Arkham House, the Hainings, Dalbys and of course the Lambs. We would regularly travel up to London to drag wearily back with bagfuls of books. All the second hand dealers knew us. G Ken Chapman, Fantasy Centre.
Gradually the thought of trying to get something published arrived. By now we were actually collaborating in all but name. One was writing the story but the other was finishing it, re-writing it. There were no actual individual stories but we hadn't yet recognised that. We were still calling a story a Len or a Mick story. At that stage, we still had quite distinct styles, but found that each story was better once the other had improved it. Our first sale was a professional one to London Mystery Magazine for £7 in 1974. It was a Mick-originated story so it appeared under his name. Later when the story was revised for the Sarob Shadows At Midnight we were able to correct that and have it under the M&S umbrella.
With the others we felt they had more belief in the supernatural and so had a greater awareness about them. There was a distinct lack of pretension about these writers that added to our own youthful love of the supernatural emotion. By comparison James was sterile, his story telling stiff compared to the less polished writing of the others.
Len's favourite writer has always been Jack Higgins and Mick's Ed McBain though we have never tried anything remotely similar to either. Just goes to show that what you read doesn't always influence how or what you write.
For us, the supernatural is an event in the story, usually obviously the pivotal event that has its basis in something that cannot be explained rather than in any earth based reality. So by that token some of our more recent, and unpublished stories are not supernatural but are horror. The bulk of our work though does feature plots that feature the unknown, the unexplained, the strange. We were influenced early on by stories that didn't have a pat explanation at the end, that didn't have reality at their core. So with our early stories we faced the criticism of being too vague, of not explaining enough. That was one of the revisions in the Shadows At Midnight book; not to explain away but to lose the vagueness.
From the mainstream authors we have learned by reading them the basics of writing; plot, story, pacing, character...
At first the process was quite painful. There was a lot of ego; the writer defended each story vigorously when the reviser suggested changes. As we said there were arguments and long silences about single words sometimes. We were both quite fiery in those days and we ended up with an agreement that if one of us walked out when it got too heated we had a place where we would invariably meet -- by the river near the local pub. See this is the story of pubs really...
Eventually Len had given up playing in the band. He was married and the father of a young child. Mick was engaged to be married. Things were apparently settling down. We were working on some ghost stories, the ones that would eventually be published by William Kimber. Len had a story he couldn't finish at all. Mick, notoriously slow at beginnings, took it and finished it. A pattern was built. Len was very good at beginnings; Mick better at endings. Most of the first version of Shadows At Midnight was written like this. The exceptions being the excellent "Border End" novella a very personal story from Len, and "Benjamin's Shadow" a story based on a miscarriage event in Mick's life. (This is why this story first appeared under Mick's name alone in the Hugh Lamb anthology Taste Of Fear.)
After Shadows, Kimber wanted more but foolishly we decided we wanted to move away from traditional ghosts and experiment more. We did so in mainstream stories -- we nearly had a Penguin contract once but fell at the last hurdle -- and more slipstream horror stories, probably before the term had even been thought of. Some of these were published -- again often under our individual names because we still hadn't fully realised we were better together. Our writing was always plagued by huge doubts. Were we good enough? What did we want to write?
We wrote a great many stories after Shadows, and some were published, but most languished in drawers because we lacked the conviction of our ability. We didn't think we had what people wanted. It is partly a testimony to the kind of lives we had then that we had no belief in ourselves. We also wrote novels but the all went unpublished.
As we matured as people, and certainly by 1997 when we really took off in terms of activity, the collaboration had developed perfectly. It is different for each story. Often now one writes and the other revises, but that might mean only a tidy for grammar and/or syntax. Occasionally now one starts and the other finishes, but you won't see the join! With longer stories, the current novel for instance, one will write completely before handing over to the other for a complete rewrite if needed, or as is more likely, a mere tarting up. We never argue now, and the style is a definite M&S one rather than two separate ones. The rule is always that one voice has ownership of the story; usually the person who first had the idea or started the story.
Email helps communication and the speed of collaboration certainly. We always meet once a week for a story conference, and that is where we bounce ideas off one another, map out stories and revise stories already written. You won't be surprised to learn we do that down the pub.
While in Chicago at WHC 2002, Mick was on a panel about collaborating, with William Nolan, Michael Slade and Mark McLaughlin, amongst others. That was great experience. And working together has been a wonderful experience as well. It had definitely enhanced our lives. We once said that we would stop if it affected our friendship, but so far, it has been only beneficial.
Everything we have read and all the people we have spoken to, including people in the music industry, say the Beatles collabs were totally genuine. They wrote separately but joined together to make the songs a whole.
Whether a novel could be successful with a dual author name is another matter. Michael Slade was adopted to prevent that and others have done the same. Whether we have to adopt a pen name if we have novels accepted is something we shall have to see about if and when it happens.
There is no wishing we could do it differently -- only be more successful and actually make some real money at it! Neither of us is a frustrated solo artist -- we have enough freedom in our current system.
In 2000, Mick was off work with a double hernia and got the ms out and stripped it down to the 33,000-word novella you can read today. Len of course revised and improved before we sent it off for publication.
We are currently working on a novel Shelter, and have two more in half completed stages, Seminar and Stronghold. We are also working on 3 crime thriller novels that are laying in the bottom drawer, having been written and discarded. We have actually been pretty prolific even during our quiet years and have a lot of material that, with our renewed confidence and vigour should see us busy for a while yet.
Incantations is our third original story collection, out in May 2002 (Selling Dark Miracles and The Secret Geography Of Nightmare being retrospectives that take the story of our writing up to the end of 2000) and Falling Into Heaven is our fourth and due out May 2003. Both these collections contain stories that take our writing onward and upward.
As far as emotions go, the deaths are taken from real emotions. Mick's father died aged 59 from a heart attack and Mick was there in the hospital as the staff tried to resuscitate him. Mick's mother died in his arms aged 71 and having suffered from Alzheimer's for more than 15 years. Len's dad died when Len was just a child. The emotion that you feel as you start to write a scene about death can be so strong that it often takes you by surprise. You write a scene and make yourself cry you know something is working all right. Now as for the sex scenes -- all fictional of course...
The characters -- well how many writers get asked whether you've 'used me in anything?' Sure, bits of people's mannerisms and funny little ways get used -- mostly it is subconsciously. If we deliberately wrote in a complete known person it wouldn't feel right at all. It works the same with names. If we use one of a person we know then the character tends to begin to be the friend or whomever it may be.
The ending has to come from the rest of the story and be a part of it. It has to be a conclusion, but, as in life, that conclusion does not always have to neat and tidy. There are times when the story is told, and the final full stop does not give the whole game away. Here is a remaining mystery and that is where the narrative has been leading all along. Now, some people find that unsatisfactory, they want the ending to explain and tuck them up in bed. It doesn't always work like that, especially in this genre.
The plot dictates the beginning middle and end and the story unfolds around that. The narrative might be meandering, or linear, it depends on the subject matter, on the atmosphere being developed or even on the choice of character. Some stories unfold like a peeled onion while others are more up front and in your face. With each story the horror is developed and revealed slowly, almost slyly, until the full terror is shown at the end. That terror might be seen, or it might merely be the realisation of what has been going on all along.
A story is believable if the characters seem real or at least appeal to the reader. The setting can be surreal but ideally, for us, has to be recognisable, even if not named and described fully. To make a reader believe in a story we believe we have to write characters who seem real or sympathetic, settings that are atmospheric or real, and have a logical sequence of events that leads to an unreal ending. That makes it believable or not but whether that makes it saleable depends on lots of other things. If saleability means people buy it then you are in the marketing and promotions territory and that's a whole new can of worms.
That is certainly what we mean by up and on. The themes are more adult, the writing more real, and the characters more full and emotional. We have taken criticism far too seriously in the past, to the extent that one rejection letter was the end of a story and it was consigned to that old bottom drawer. Nowadays we have a far more balanced view. We do take all criticism seriously but not to the extent that we crumble at the slightest knock. All views are subjective -- editing has helped us learn that. One person's rejection is another's glowing acceptance. Stories with Honourable Mentions and even Stoker nominations against them have been rejected at one stage -- our stories we mean.
We use comments about stories objectively and always look at the element of the story being examined and see if the comments are right. We might alter the story or we might not. Our confidence is high enough and sound and resilient enough now that we can make our own final decision on whether we change or not. We use the criticism again when writing a new story. If someone has said for instance -- and for example -- that we use the word 'had' too much, we will be conscious of that and revise accordingly. If we think they have a point of course.
These stories are more or less the content of our traditional ghosts story output. The stories in Incantations -- due from prime Books USA in hardback $29.95 and paperback $15 in May 2002 pre-order from Michael@micksims.f9.co.uk ) are the start of our more modern approach. The range of themes is wider, the style a little harder, the characters having to deal with different types of problems.
Incantations, and the collection due out in 2003, Falling Into Heaven, have stories about just about every aspect of our own lives that we have fictionalised into stories. Because a lot of them are so personal we feel the work on a much deeper level than the earlier stories. There is more emotion in them, more depth.
As you read hundreds of submissions you see mistakes you know you have made in your own work. You see ways to pace better, to create better characters, to write better dialogue. As you then write you do so with a whole new teacher on your shoulder, nagging you not to accept 95% right but to go for the 100% each time. It has definitely honed and improved our writing.
The downside undoubtedly the loss of time. If Enigmatic hadn't closed when it did we would have had nervous breakdowns for sure with all the work we were trying to do. Darkness Rising is better as we only edit, but then we've done Cold Touch and Best Of Enigmatic Tales this year as well, and two years of F20.
Editing is great and it has helped us become better writers. Other editors I spoke with at WHC in Chicago said pretty much the same. The balance has to be not to try to take too much on. We are lucky because there are two of us so we more or less keep on top of things most of the time.
Enigmatic had ended of course before we took up Darkness Rising. The beauty of editing for another publisher is that all we do now is the best bit of reading loads of stories and accepting or rejecting them. The hard work of marketing, selling, posting, and all the financial control is someone else's baby. That someone happens to be the excellent Sean Wallace of Cosmos and prime Books. Sean, whom Mick met in April, is a great bloke to work with. He gives us full editorial control but is interested and perceptive enough to offer very valid comment on the contents of each volume as we deliver them to him. He usually tells us off for missed typos, but then he is very very good at proof reading, and what he misses his excellent colleagues, Garry, Gord, Monica and Jared, pick up on. Prime has a great future. We are delighted to be involved.
Apart from writing we were also going through some very stormy times in real life. Len's marriage was on the rocks and divorce followed. He then met someone else and a new life had to be built. Karen, his new partner and now wife, lost her father. Len's son from the marriage had to be guided through these changes, and then there were various changes at work that distracted. Mick lost his father, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and his marriage ended. He met someone else but her family were devout Catholics who disapproved of a divorcee. Years of discussions with the Catholic legal system followed before Mick and Clare could be married. Miscarriages were a regular feature before (and after) dear Emily was born. Mick's work was always changing with twenty different locations of work during a twenty-five year period. We both had house moves, health issues from time to time. Hell where did al the time go?
It was in 1997, and it just happened out of the blue, that we were sitting together -- do I have to say it was in a pub? -- we started talking about writing again. We had never stopped talking about it of course, but this time we started doing something about it. Our lives were nicely settled, we were happy and stable, it just seemed the right thing to do.
We are writing one horror novel now, Shelter, and that will be finished in June. Then we have two more, Seminar and Stronghold that we will write. At the same time, more or less, we will write three crime thrillers, Mere Mortals, Killing Room, Through the Sad Heart. Then there is the re-writing of Demons. All these are failures from the past that we now recognise were not total failures just first drafts.
We have spoken to a few publishers and the stage we are at is to send the first three chapters with a synopsis and see what happens. We have never used an agent, and may not even now, so we will have to be patient.
With Len writing new -- including completely new versions of old stories we had destroyed -- and Mick re-writing old stories we soon had enough for a new collection, and that eventually came out from Sarob as Echoes Of Darkness. When we had finished the revising of all the old stories, and while still writing brand new ones, it seemed natural to revise Shadows.
We loved the stories in that book but felt they could have been written more capably. Some were revised for grammar and syntax, some for dialogue as well, and a few underwent plot changes and a few new scenes. We included that first ever sale story, revised of course, and included one new one and the collection was reborn. It was a great opportunity and we are eternally grateful to Robert Morgan for his faith in us.
At the same time we had the mad idea that we could run a small press ourselves. We started Enigmatic Tales in 1998, quickly followed by Enigmatic Novellas, Enigmatic Variations and latter Enigmatic Electronic. That ended in 2000 during which time we had also co-edited and published two issues of F20 for the British Fantasy Society. As we said earlier it was draining trying to run Enigmatic Press while writing as well. How we managed to write so much is difficult now to comprehend. But write we did. As we also mentioned earlier if only we had always been this prolific.
Demons has its share of normal (whatever that is of course) characters and even more its share of weird ones. The pace is fast from the start, or near the start, and yes it does continue throughout, so it does differ from our normal style. Why? The desire to do something different, the need to spread our wings a bit. We can't and don't want to stand still, we want to stretch ourselves. With ghost stories we reached a stage when we found there were only so many ways to describe a shadow in a corner in a menacing way and that applies to slow paced stories. There are times when you want something completely different and Demons helped us with that.
It works in Demons, at least we think so. The story is fast and furious but there is enough depth in there to satisfy most readers.
If we kept the flavour the same for decades eventually people would tire of it even if it was a great taste. There has to be variety. It isn't better now, just different. Because of stylistic changes now some of the older classics read a little creakingly today. One has to hold judgement on style of language and enjoy the other qualities. The modern reader will be more familiar with so many other media than the reader of old and that is bound to affect judgement. Plots and subjects used successfully fifty years ago may not stand the test of time today by the average reader, who will have used it on their PlayStation, or seen it on Buffy or the latest movie.
Ultimately good fiction will rise to the top because the elements all combine to make an individual story work. That applies to old stories and new ones. Which would we rather read? Both, just as we love old black and white movies but still enjoy good new ones.
We are both 50 in the next six months or so and that is a significant watershed in anyone's life. We are relaxed, happy, and eager, more so than we have ever been, to make a success out of our writing. The editing is a diversion, a pleasant one, and we enjoy it, and it does seem to be well received, but to be totally honest it is our writing that takes the front and centre of stage for us.
The editing is the bass and drums, but it is our writing that is the lead singer and lead guitar. The real driving force is our wish to have people say, 'yes, M & S are good writers -- they are on my list of the want to read writers'.
In UK the genre is perceived as second rate and looked down on by serious critics and readers. Mick found he was apologising to colleagues for attending WHC, justifying attendance with comic comments to show he didn't take horror too seriously. That's daft of course but horror is perceived as a bit juvenile, something you'll grow out of in time.
In USA, by our limited experience, the genre seems to be taken a bit more seriously and ranked equal to other genres. That seems the case in Canada as well.
Finish the novel Shelter. Get it accepted. Write the first three chapters to Seminar and the same on Stronghold. Write the synopsis of all three novels. Get a deal on them.
Write the synopsis and first three chapters on the three crime thrillers, Mere Mortals, Killing Room, and Through the Sad Heart. Get a deal on them.
Write Demons the novel...
See Falling Into Heaven published next year and promote it to be even more successful than Incantations.
See Darkness Rising continue to rise; see Best Of Enigmatic Tales and Cold Touch out this year. (The latter is a great looking anthology edited by us and with the excellent William P Simmons -- due out from prime in November 2002.)
Relax, be happy...
Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.
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