I am super excited to welcome Graham Masterton to take part in my Q&A interview has part of the celebrations for the release of The Coven which is out now. Graham Masterton was a bestselling horror writer who has now turned his talent to crime and thrillers. He is also the author of the bestselling Katie Maguire series, set in Cork, Ireland. Which I highly recommend.
Good morning welcome to Chelle’s Book Reviews. Can you tell us a little about yourself and background?
I am the great-grandson on my mother’s side of Robert Baker, who was Queen Victoria’s chief inspector of factories, and who did a great deal to alleviate the hardship of young children working in mills and mines, and the grandson on my father’s side of the chief inspector of mines in Scotland, who was responsible for reporting on mine disasters. Whether that ancestry has made me curious about anything and everything I don’t know, but I am.
I was educated at an all-boy’s public school but when my parents had to move I was sent to a mixed grammar school to study for A-levels. Unfortunately I spent more time studying the girls in my class and was expelled after two terms. That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me as a writer because I found a job at the age of 17 as a trainee reporter on my local newspaper the Crawley Observer.
Within a very short time I had my own bylined page about pop music and entertainment, and also wrote a humorous column called Private Ear.
I wanted to work for a Fleet Street newspaper but I was turned down by The Daily Telegraph and told to go and work for a provincial paper up north for a few years. I didn’t fancy that, and then a girlfriend told me that she had seen a man on the Tube reading a new Playboy-type magazine called Mayfair. I wrote them a very arrogant letter and they interviewed me in the swimming-pool at the RAC club in Pall Mall and gave me the job of deputy editor. This was not as grand as it sounds because there was only the editor, me, a secretary, and the owner’s dog.
At Mayfair, though, I learned a lot about marketing, layout and typography, and after talking to a lot of the centrefold models, I started a feature called Quest, which was a question-and-answer discussion of sexual relationships based on what these girls told me about their love lives.
I had a row with the editor after three years and walked out, but almost immediately got a job as deputy editor of Penthouse magazine. Penthouse was just starting in America then, so I travelled to New York quite frequently and there I go to know American book publishers. One of them suggested I write an anecdotal sex book like Quest and so I wrote How A Woman Loves To Be Loved by ‘Angel Smith.’ It was a great success and so I wrote How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed under my own name which also sold very well and is still in print today.
After a year or two the editor of Penthouse resigned and I took over as editor. I had an affair with my Polish editorial assistant Wiescka (office Christmas party) and the stress became intolerable so I quit Penthouse and Wiescka and I went to Stockholm for a while, where I edited the notorious sex magazine Private.
By then my sex books were selling so well that I left Private and we came back to England, where we married. After about a year, though, my American publisher said that the bottom had fallen out of the sex-book market (so to speak). I told him he still had a contract with me, so I sent him a horror novel that I had written for my own amusement in between sex books. That was The Manitou, about a Native American shaman who is reborn in a white women so that he can take his revenge on white settlers for what they did to his people. It was inspired partly by Wiescka’s pregnancy and partly by an article that I had read in The Buffalo Bill Annual1956 about Native American spirits – manitous.
The Manitou sold tremendously well, mostly because it was about a demonic threat that nobody else had written about before. It was filmed by Bill Girdler starring Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara and Burgess Meredith.
After that I took to writing horror novels, and then historical sagas and political thrillers and disaster novels…anything that aroused my curiosity. Although all of these books were successful, and some of them made the New York Times bestseller list, it was something of a mistake, careerwise. The Manitou and Salem’s Lot came out about the same time, but Stephen King continued to write horror and steadily build up his fanbase, while I wrote about such a diversity of subjects, from oil tycoons to plagues to political assassinations, that it was difficult for readers to follow what I was doing.
I did build up a tremendous following in Poland, however, mainly because of Wiescka’s encouragement, and these days I visit Poland at least two or three times a year. I have started the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award for Polish prison inmates to write short stories and that has been a great success and also very rewarding in encouraging prisoners to express their feelings to an audience outside their prison walls. We will be running the award contest again next year.
Around the turn of the century, Wiescka and I went to live in Cork, in Ireland for a few years, and that inspired me to write a new series of crime thrillers featuring Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire. I had never read any thrillers set in Cork before, and it is an extraordinary city, with its own humour and its own very colourful slang.
Last year I had the idea of creating a young woman crime scene investigator, but setting the novel in the 18th century, when modern chemistry was in its infancy. Beatrice Scarlet, the heroine of the first novel, Scarlet Widow, is the daughter of an apothecary, who has taught her all he knows about chemicals and medicines. In the new Beatrice Scarlet story, The Coven, she has to solve a mass murder that appears to be the work of the Devil, although Beatrice thinks differently.
As for myself, I live close to Epsom racecourse. I spend most of my days writing. My hobby is cooking, and I have been featured several times in national newspapers. The Sunday Times ran an article about my Malaccan curry which has 10 chilis in it, and is rather appropriatel. called Devil Curry
When did you know that you wanted to become a writer? and how did you go about it?
I was never conscious of wanting to become a writer. I just was, as soon as I could write. I wrote my first novel after I had been taken to see the film of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea with Kirk Douglas and James Mason. I rushed home and wrote a story about a harpooner called Hans Lee who fought giant squids. I wrote it in an exercise book and stuck on a cardboard cover with an illustration on the front, and sold it to my best friend for a penny. My first sale! I think I was about eight at the time. After that I wrote more adventures of Hans Lee and also about a Pickwick-like character who had various humorous adventures. Then I discovered Edgar Allan Poe and wrote short three-page horror stories, which I read out to my schoolfriends during break. I wrote a 400-page vampire novel when I was about thirteen but sadly that has been lost.
At thirteen or fourteen I discovered hardbitten American novelists like Nelson Algren (The Man With The Golden Arm) and Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny). Then I came across the Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. I was deeply taken with their outspokenness and their directness. I became friends with William Burroughs, and when he moved to London from Tangier, I commissioned him to write a series of articles for Mayfair called The Burroughs Academy. He and I used to talk for hours about how to make novels involving for the reader…how to make the reader feel they were actually living the story.
The only way to go about writing is to write. It is very much harder work than most people realise. It not only requires original ideas, it takes a huge amount of research and a great deal of mental stamina.
I have helped a young woman author Dawn Harris to write her first novel Diviner, which will be published next spring. It took four years of hard slog, though, and her determination to get it right even when my criticism of her early drafts was very harsh.
I am also encouraging an Irish professor of psychology, Sabina Brennan, to write her first book about Brain Health.
Can you tell us what genre your books are and the audience you write for?
I am known as a horror writer although when I first started I didn’t even know what a ‘genre’ was. As I mentioned, I have also written historical sagas such as Rich, Railroad, Silver and Maiden Voyage, as well as political thrillers like Ikon, Sacrifice and The Sweetman Curve. I am writing crime thrillers at the moment but they do have a strong element of horror because I don’t believe in holding back on how grisly murder can be. I am not like Agatha Christie where the worst thing that happens is that the bishop gets beaten to death with a badger in the bathroom.
I have just finished a new horror novel, though – Ghost Virus – which I hope will be published next year.
My readers have to have strong stomachs because I don’t hold back when it comes to crime or for human relationships for that matter. I make no excuses for it. Far worse things happen in real life, like children getting blown apart in the Middle East and innocent concert-goers getting shot in the face at music festivals. And I am always upfront about sex. It is one of the most important driving forces in our lives and there is no point about being coy about it.
What is your writing process? and how long does it take?
I have a mug of horseshoe coffee in the morning (so-called by American railroad workers because they said it was so strong you could float a horseshoe in it). Then I write and carry on writing all day, except for a walk to stretch my legs and buy a newspaper. In the evening I will go to the pub sometimes to meet friends or take a pretty girl out to dinner.
A 350-page novel usually takes me about three to four months depending on the subject.
Are your characters based on anyone you know or are they just fictional?
They are mostly fictional, although Harry Erskine the hero of The Manitou is quite like me in some respects, in that he doesn’t take life too seriously and he is good at Tarot cards. Sometimes a woman character might have elements of the women I know. I enjoy writing about heroines because of the challenge of getting inside a woman’s mind. All my life all of my best friends have been women. I am still close friends with a woman journalist I first met when I started as a trainee reporter.
Have you wrote about a personal experience in your novels?
After Wiescka passed away, I wrote two novels about bereavement, Community and Forest Ghost, and they helped me to come to terms with losing her. She used to read (and criticise) my novels chapter by chapter so her input was invaluable. A young Polish woman I know, Marysia Raczkowska, helped me to get back into writing by agreeing to do the same thing when I was writing Community.
What research do you do?
A huge amount, very little of which appears in the finished novel. You just have to sound as if you know what you’re talking about, without boring the reader with everything that you’ve found out. The research for an 18th century novel like The Coven is very time-consuming because you have to know the geography of the area that you’re writing about (fortunately I found a contemporary map of the City of London), as well as the vocabulary and slang that people would use in those days, what people wore, what they ate, how they travelled around, and what their daily routine would be. Was the word ‘flabbergasted’ known in 1758? (Yes.) Did women wear knickers in 1758? (No.)
A hackney coach driver tells Beatrice that London stinks so much in the summer she will need a clothes-peg on her nose. No…can’t say that. Even the most basic clothespegs were not invented until the 1820s, by Puritans in America. Before that, clothes were dried on bushes in the summer or fireguards in the winter.
It’s the same with the Irish crime series. I have to keep up with the latest shenanigans in An Garda Siochana, the Irish police, as well as the latest forensic techniques. Having lived in Cork, I know most of the Cork slang, but I have to be careful how much I use or my readers won’t be able to understand what the hell any of the characters is talking about. Dowcha, boy! (Well done, mate!)
Who would you like to co-write with and why?
I am too critical to want to co-write with anybody else. I can’t read fiction these days because it only takes one clumsily-written sentence and my disbelief is promptly unsuspended. I can also tell when an authors are bored by what they are writing, or when they’re hungry or tired. I co-wrote one novel Rules of Duel with William Burroughs when we were trying out his ‘intersection writing’ technique. You write a sentence and then cut it up and change the words around so that it takes on a different meaning. The novel stayed in my drawer for about 20 years before it was published by Telos Books. It’s very avant-garde but it’s an interesting exercise in experimental writing.
What’s your favorite book?
It used to be The Process which was given to me by its author, the late Brion Gysin, in 1970. I have never finished it because the writing is so precise and exquisite. A box of matches ‘chuckles.’ My favourite book now, though, is definitely Dawn Harris’ Diviner, about a young woman who has a special talent for seeing people’s real characters in their faces. I can’t wait for it to be published to see how readers react.
What’s your favorite food?
I love Polish food. Apart from having been married to a Polish woman, my other great-great-grandfather was a Polish wine merchant in Warsaw. His son escaped from Poland to avoid being conscripted into the Russian Imperial Army and came to England. I am addicted to zurek at the moment, a Polish sour rye soup with sausage and hard-boiled eggs in it, as well as sledz, which is pickled herring. Most of my own cooking is Chinese or Thai or Indonesian.
What’s your favorite film?
The Suitor, a French comedy starring Pierre Etaix. Followed by Elvira Madigan, by Bo Widerberg, the story of a Swedish tightrope-walker who elopes with a soldier. This is the only film that makes my eyes suspiciously dewy.
What’s your favorite song?
It varies. At the moment, The Problem by the late JJ Cale. Not only is it a great song, but it sums up with the US presidency to a T. I like some Irish punk, too.
How can readers find out more information about yourself and your books?
My official UK website is www.grahammasterton.co.uk. I am on Facebook and Twitter and I also have an official Polish website http://grahammasterton.blox.pl/html and two other Polish reader sites on Facebook, Graham Masterton Polska and Graham Masterton fan club PL, as well as a French reader site Graham Masterton fans francophones. I am also featured on Wikipedia.
Thank you so much for joining me today for this brilliant interview. I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for Diviner by Dawn Harris
Grab your copy of The Coven from Amazon