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The Shape of Symphonics

Stephen Gallagher interviewed by David Mathew

First published in Mystery Scene issue number 72, editor Ed Gorman

Stephen Gallagher photo for Mystery Scene interview

Stephen Gallagher is the author of nine novels, numerous short stories, and in recent years has become increasingly active in television. A man of many talents, and never a writer to rest on his laurels, he has written good hard thrillers, some horror genre work (such as Valley of Lights), and a novel (Oktober) that might even qualify as a vague distortion of contemporary world fantasy… in places. You might go as far as to employ that overused phrase sui generis. He is, at any rate, one of the best writers of his generation; and he lives in Lancashire, England, with his wife and daughter.

David Mathew: What has gone wrong with the publishing industry in England?

Stephen Gallagher: I think the big problem for the industry today, and it's a self-created one, is that it isn't particularly concerned about writing. It's concerned about celebrity, fashion, crossovers, numbers… anything but craft and quality. You can't have a healthy industry that's all fringe and no core, which is pretty well what we've got. I'm sure it's because of the corporate thing, because I've watched it happen. The root of the problem is that publishing doesn't recognise readers any more, it only sees buyers. The lack of regard infects the entire process from editorial policy down to the actual production of the goods. I'm reading a James Ellroy right now and it's like a lousy photocopy.

What are you working on at the moment?

I just handed a new novel called The Spirit Box over to my agent, so I'm still a little punchy from completing that. Between drafts I worked on an original feature screenplay titled John Gabriel for the company that produced Oktober for TV. They originally approached me five years ago wanting a new action hero with franchise potential. They offered to put me on a retainer while I came up with something. The money would have been welcome but I couldn't do it that way. The story's got to be the thing, not some business need. They kept checking with me and I kept putting them off until I had one, and then when we made the deal I made sure I held onto the publishing rights. I wasn't being precious, I was being practical. I know I can't go the distance with something I don't 100% believe in. Iain Softley's supposed to be making The Boat House for Paramount this year, but I no longer have anything to do with it. I'm developing a miniseries with the BBC that's in great shape but is stuck in this bureaucratic Sargasso where everyone insists they want it to happen but no-one will finally greenlight it. That's called Victorian Gothic and the idea behind it is to embody the spirit of nineteenth-century sensational fiction with the production values of a classic adaptation. Couple of other things as well. A low-budget British suspense movie that I've written and I'm trying to raise the money to direct. A series of TV mysteries. I've got a good hook for the next novel but not the resolution of it, as yet. Got a short coming up sometime in F&SF, first new one I've done in a while.

As you know, I've read The Spirit Box and I happen to think it's probably the best novel you've written. What can you say about The Spirit Box and its origins?

I reckon the seed of it was planted when I saw Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb and heard Charles Crumb telling of how he'd once taken all the drugs in the bathroom cabinet and then relented on his suicide attempt and asked his mother to drive him to the hospital. I immediately swung the situation around in my mind to see it from the parent's point of view. What a journey that would be… the ultimate suspense ride with your kid's life ticking away on the seat beside you while every obstacle on the route assumed life-threatening proportions. What would you say to each other, knowing it might be the last conversation you'd ever have? And I suppose I could have drawn a line under it there and written a neat novella or a short novel around that one incident with a 'Whew, just made it,' payoff, but there was potentially so much more to it. I've a weakness for stories of heartbreaking obsession like Vertigo or The Searchers, and I think I saw the opportunity to take it in that kind of direction. I've seen lots of thrillers where personal loss is just a convenient motivation for a hard-nuts hero. And I thought, what if I played that for real and still went for all the same buttons? And if I did, what kind of deliverance could I bring to such a character?

Do you regard The Spirit Box in any sense as a companion piece to Red, Red Robin? In that they both have English protagonists adrift in America. The two books, although very different, seem to slot together to me. The English woman with the man-sized space beside her (your phrase) in Red, Red Robin - against the English man with a wife-and-daughter-sized space beside him in The Spirit Box. Or, the English woman's initial defencelessness which turns into the urge to fight back - against the English man's initial proposal to attack which frequently backfires during his investigation. And I could go on…

All part of my grand strategy to persuade the world that my limited bag of tricks is actually a recurring set of personal themes.

This novel would seem to continue your love/hate/fascination for America. What does America mean to you a) as a person, and b) as a writer?

Like everyone born in these islands since the 1940s I grew up in a second-hand American culture. That's no big complaint, by the way. Back in the Renaissance we had a second-hand Continental culture and that threw up Shakespeare, just as in the 'sixties it was American music that kickstarted the Beatles. It's all a matter of filtering influences and keeping a hold on who you are. What can come out of that is something quite rooted and unique. I made my first visit to the US in 1978 and spent a month travelling from the west coast to the east. Two years later I went back and did east to west, only this time I took four months over it. The fascination started there and it's never diminished. Suddenly I was seeing the place first-hand, unprocessed, unmediated… it was almost like going backstage. I've lost track of how much time I've spent there since. I suppose that for the writer in me it answered a need… as well as it being a landscape and a society with opportunities for storytelling on a mythic scale, I think I needed something that I could turn a stranger's eye onto. When I write about the US I'm not doing it as an ersatz American, faking it for the market. The voice is always my own. I'd like to think it's more akin to a movie like Paris, Texas. Or any American movie shot by a European cameraman where an outsider sensibility makes for something you wouldn't otherwise get.

When we spoke in 1996 for a different interview we talked about titles, and you said that a title needs to have an artery connected to every paragraph of the text. Do you still believe this? And if so, please explain what you had in mind with the title The Spirit Box.

I suppose I can theorise all I like but I think at the root of it, a title either feels right or it doesn't, and if it doesn't feel right then you can't recognise your own work by it. You get the worst titles of all by simply trying to think up something commercial. Then you're just trying to work up a generic enthusiasm in the reader, whereas reader enthusiasm needs something specific to fix on. I reckon the work makes the title, not the other way around. I'd love to have seen the look on the marketing people's faces when they were handed Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I know from the producer that there was enormous distributor resistance to Four Weddings and a Funeral. Yet once they were out there, they were imitated endlessly. I'll bet you there's a memo somewhere saying 'We can't let him call it The Silence of the Lambs, no-one will know what it means.' I was shown a gentleman's spirit box in a plantation house in West Virginia and I knew I had my title right there and then. I went straight out to the car and put it in the notebook. The story was no more than half-developed at that time, and I'd been filing notes under the working titles of The Suicide Book and then The Giantkiller, knowing that the real one had yet to come along. What I liked about The Spirit Box was that it was a simple, uninflected title but it has a resonance you can't pin down. Once I had it, I began to get a steadily clearer vision of what the book was going to be.

And finally on this subject, what shape is The Spirit Box?

I suppose you could call it symphonic in shape - a big opening statement to kick off with, then a succession of sub-themes that intertwine and build up to a point demanding resolution, and then a big final movement that repeats the structure of the opening but uses the sub-themes to work everything out. Well, it makes sense to me.

And me! Let's talk about some of your other work. You are known as a writer adroit at conveying highly emotionally charged situations, but I think that with Rain you hit a new watermark (if you'll forgive me) in the delineation of atmosphere. There is rain soaking through the book, and the reader really feels it. The atmosphere is amazing. Perhaps you could say a little bit about that book. Where did the idea come from?

Atmospherically, at least, I think it has a big streak of the old 'phantom hitch-hiker' urban legend running through it. It's that physical milieu of lonely roads and strange places, it's that same loss-driven ache. I was just at that age where you run into people you grew up with and see that they're not the kids you remember, but adults who've been taking the knocks. They've got stories now. That put me in the shoes of Joe Lucas, the policeman on the case of the dead girl he never asked out and now never will. Then opposite him you've got her younger sister, obsessed with the same case to the extent of stepping into the dead girl's shoes and even occupying her personality, so that history starts to replay itself toward the same tragic end. That's how all my stuff comes about, really… there's no single high-concept 'idea', it's more a case of finding elements that will give you an ongoing reaction.

You once said that Nightmare, With Angel was like boxing at a higher weight. Do you still believe that it's the best thing you've done?

Nightmare With Angel cover

I'm really not the one to judge. I can look back on different books and see qualities I was never aware of at the time. In darker moments I can look at elements I was proud of and think how much better they could have been. I'm proud of Nightmare, With Angel as a long-haul crime-and-redemption epic, but I'm equally proud of Valley of Lights as a hundred-yard dash. I'm prouder of Red, Red Robin now than I was when I finished it. And it's like a parental pride, more than regular vanity. Although I'm sure I've no shortage of that. The Spirit Box can stand alongside Nightmare, With Angel, I'm sure of that much.

You wrote the novelisation of the Martin Amis-penned movie Saturn 3. How did that project come about for you?

It was just a gig, back in 1979. I was working for a TV company and the union called a strike which went on for twelve weeks. My agent came up with the job and I took it. I got a copy of the screenplay and two non-professional snapshots, one of the robot costume and one of a tunnel set. That was it. The script was terrible. I thought it was bad then but in retrospect, and with experience, I can see how truly inept it was. That may not be Amis' fault. Years later I met someone who'd worked on the production and she told me that every script doctor in town had taken an uncredited swing at it, so it's impossible to say whether it was stillborn or had been gangbanged to death. I did the straight piece of journeyman work I'd been hired for, turned it in, and banked the money. It's not my book, by any definition. It's more like a housepainting job. That's all novelisations are.

Now that you have been writing professionally for - what? - nineteen years or so? - do you need to work as hard as ever to maintain suspense?

Suspense takes craft, and craft takes work. You can eliminate unnecessary effort but the necessary effort remains the same. I still reckon you have to generate a ton of story possibilities before you can determine the one clean line that'll take you through it.

I think it also needs incredible timing, and I think you have a comedian's sense of timing, with punchlines often given a one-line paragraph of their own; and some of the passages even have the structure of jokes, with elaborate feed-lines, expansions, deflations, and bingo…

I hadn't considered the comedy analogy, but I imagine it's a valid one. Comedy and suspense both involve the careful management of reaction. They're both about tension and release, and they're both about rhythm. But then I can't imagine any kind of writing that doesn't demand line-by-line attention and a constant awareness of effect.

Are you too close to the action to be affected by the suspense you create, or do you get it as well as you hope the reader will?

I'm certainly affected by the process of putting it all together. You can't have suspense without emotional involvement, and it's got to be there when you're writing it or it will never be there for the reader. I'm not saying I'm like one of those romance writers who weep over their heroines. They need therapy. But I get a definite kick when I hit on a suspenseful situation and a slow-burn feeling of excitement when I'm carrying it through. What the reader should get is that same dose in its concentrated form. You can't do suspense as a mere technician, it just doesn't work on anything more than the most superficial level. You're communicating a thrill. It's got to be there to be communicated.

And on the subject of characterization, Kim Newman once said to me that you can characterize someone well by describing their record collection.

I think he's probably right, but I don't know what hard conclusions you'd draw from mine!

Who do you like to listen to?

My record-buying's always followed one of two patterns. In one of them I'll have a phase where I'll play everything I can get my hands on for a while… I've had a Mahler phase, a Bowie phase, a Puccini phase, a John Barry phase, a Warren Zevon phase… the other pattern is where I'll buy an album on an impulse, play it to death, then buy the next one from the same artist and not like it. I also find I'm discovering some of the music of my parents' generation which I felt obliged to reject as part of growing up. What else? I'm a sucker for a tenor aria with all the stops out. I don't own any comedy records.

Do you still get as big a kick out of writing as you ever did?

Yes, I do. It's just the sitting down and typing that gets ever harder.

How often do you look back on your earlier work, and when you do, how do you feel?

Not too often, is the honest answer. There have been times when I've maybe dipped in and glanced at a page or two, but never more than that. The feeling is usually one of slight surprise because it reads like someone else's work. Which it is, I suppose. That self is gone.

As a family man, do you fears for your family ever work their way into your plots?

Absolutely. It means I'm not the entire centre of my own universe and for a writer that's no bad thing.

Would you mind giving an example or two?

I suppose the most direct example of life feeding into art would be my short story The Visitors' Book, which isn't autobiographical but is assembled from autobiographical elements. It was one of those little fears that opens your mind to the possibility of much bigger ones. In this case it was a wasp sting in a strange place far from home. One brief helpless moment where I felt the abyss start to open up under me. I think it's my most-reprinted story.

Have you ever wanted to continue any of your stories in another book?

Not so far. Not in the sense of making a sequel or continuing the life of a series character. Closure has always been an essential part of structure for me. The way I go for it, the end of a story should feel like the end of an era. That's not to say you can't revisit some characters in another part of their lives if you've got a completely new tale to tell, but that would have to involve a genuine new beginning. Otherwise it'll feel like a second pressing, or an improbable extension, which is exactly how I felt about Hannibal.

And the last question, which you might choose to ignore… but I mean it with sincerity. Do you feel under-valued as a writer sometimes?

Yes, is the honest answer. But did you ever hear that quote from Cato where he said, I'd rather have people asking why I have no statue than asking why I have one?

Interview by David Mathew