I Am Tom’s Existing Fears
Tom Fletcher interviewed by Alan Kelly.
“Jack Sprat could eat no fat
His wife could eat no lean
And so betwixt the two of them
They licked the platter clean…”
Tom Fletcher is a young author, who at 25 has already made a name for himself thanks to spine-chilling readings of his work in and around Manchester. His writing appeared in a three-author anthology, Before the Rain and The Leaping, his first novel, is a staggeringly brilliant, witty, scary and confident debut. This kind of book is rare. Like Adam Nevill’s Apartment 16, once you begin, there is no way back. The words alter things somehow, everyday objects, trivial conversations, even watching a film or going for a walk can take on sinister connotations. It is that good. Not since first reading Poppy Z Brite have I been so enraptured by words or left my lamp on at night or convinced myself a man was standing at my window….I tell you this because I do not scare easily and Tom Fletcher has unnerved, repulsed, saddened and filled me with a terrifying kind of wonder. He has also half-convinced me those things people said you imagined where in fact really lurking under your bed at night.
3:AM: Tom, The Leaping is one of the most outstanding genre offerings I’ve read this year and the first in a planned series – soon to be followed by The Thing on the Shore. You worked very closely with Nicholas Royle, who championed your book right from the beginning – I can understand why. Can you tell me a bit about your literary background and where The Leaping came from?
Tom Fletcher: Thank you very much. I’ve always written fiction, ever since I was a child. But it was only when I was trying to choose a degree course that I decided to really try to get published, and so I applied for a creative writing degree. As part of that course I wrote a short story about a werewolf which was the beginning of The Leaping, I suppose, although only in a thematic sense – none of it made it into the actual novel. After graduating, I carried on playing around with this werewolf novel, and carried on writing short stories. I got a short story published by Comma Press, in an anthology called Parenthesis, and Sarah Hymas – the editor at Flax – read that story and then asked me to contribute some other stories for an anthology she was putting together. That anthology was called Before the Rain. As payment, Litfest – who run the publisher, Flax – set the contributors up on a mentoring scheme, which I think was a fantastic idea. I asked to be mentored by Nicholas Royle, and the work I decided to submit for his feedback was the draft of the werewolf novel I was working on, which became The Leaping.
3:AM: Only the other day I was in Forbidden Planet and I clocked a copy of Fortean Times – which one of your characters actually wrote for. I was expecting to see his by-line. The Leaping is a dazzling (and original) take on the werewolf mythos, taking cues from folklore, film and literature. Did you always plan to write an offbeat horror novel?
TF: Haha, no – not at all! Writing a horror novel was never a decision I made – I just wanted to write a contemporary, relevant novel, about the world that I recognised. I suppose because I love horror and fantasy, and I do have an interest in folklore myself, those supernatural elements crept in of their own accord. Whatever I write, I try not to think about what genre the work might be, or where in the bookshop it might be shelved if published, in case those categories get restrictive.
3:AM: A large chunk of the novel takes place in a call-centre, where everyday seems like a dark night of the soul. It doesn’t help matters that they are working under the ghastly Kenny and the mysterious Artemis Black. Is this part of the book gleaned from real-life experience, or am I wildly speculating?
TF: I have worked in a call-centre, so there is some real-life experience in there, definitely. Kenny and Artemis though are entirely fictional. I’ve never had to work for anybody so unpleasant myself. Having said that, I hope that people recognise aspects of these characters. People have told me that they do, which is great.
3:AM: You return to Artemis in your next book – the character has a cameo in The Leaping. The Thing on the Shore seems like a very different novel to The Leaping – how different is it going to be?
TF: It is going to be quite different in terms of the type of horror – The Thing on the Shore hopefully has more of an eerie, psychedelic, fantastic sense to it. But it will still sit happily within the horror genre, and there will be quite clear thematic links. There will be echoes of The Leaping as well – there is one particular incidental detail in The Leaping that ties in to quite an important idea in The Thing on the Shore. You wouldn’t have to read them in order, or have to read one to understand the other, but if you were to read both – and any subsequent books – you’d start to get a picture of something larger underlying them all.
3:AM: You really up the ante in the second and third part of the book with a Bacchanalian sequence of events which is chilling, violent, frenzied and poignant. While in part one you focus on Jack and Jennifer’s love story and Francis struggling with the news of his father’s illness and his own growing feelings for the waifish Jennifer – who you never quite get the measure of; did you know where the characters would begin and end?
TF: I knew at the beginning what their preoccupations would be, but I didn’t plan out their stories. I wanted to let them lead the way – let their weaknesses shape the story, really. So when some event affects them I would just work out what they would do, and write that, and then that would dictate the next sequence of events. For me, the characters are what make the book relevant, and so it is crucial that they’re convincing. I believe that letting the characters drive the story is the best way to do that.
3:AM: Jack has a number of experiences which could be described as prescient throughout the novel – he also has an interest in folklore and the occult and falls in love with someone who is otherworldly and relocates to Fell House in Cumbria (I love the name Fell House). Am I right in assuming, had he known about what was to come, that he would have went to that place willingly?
TF: I’m glad you like the house name. Thank you. Jack’s fantasy of finding another, more magical world means that he would be drawn to places where he knew there was the potential for supernatural happenings, yeah, but I don’t think he would have gone to Fell House if he’d known exactly what was going to happen.
3:AM: Fell House reminded me of the house in Catherine Storr’s children’s fable Marianne Dreams. Fell House is akin to something you would visit in the darkest of dreams, what inspired its creation?
TF: I haven’t read that book – will have to give it a go. Fell House is actually more or less based on real houses that I’ve lived in. There are plenty of old farmhouses like that scattered across the fells of West Cumbria, some of them in beautiful condition, and others that are more or less just shells. I’ve lived in very old farmhouses that have required lots of renovation in the past, and I used that experience when creating Fell House. The stone floors, the lack of curtain rails, the big empty barn, the loose slates, the rotten floorboards – those are all just drawn from memory.
3:AM: You’ve covered lycanthropes, what other supernatural creatures would you like to visit in your work? At the end of the book there is the suggestion of Hell in your literary universe, I would love to see your version of there…
TF: All being well, you will see that Hell. Maybe not for a couple of books yet, but yes – that is important. I want to write a book about ghosts, or, rather, one ghost in particular. I won’t say too much about that at that moment though.
3:AM: I’ve read some astonishing literary horror writers this year – ones which come to mind are Conrad Williams‘ The Unblemished, Joseph D’Lacey’s Meat, Adam Nevill’s Apartment 16, Allyson Bird’s Bull Running for Girls and yours. Who are some of your favourite writers and filmmakers?
TF: There are too many to list them all, but – when it comes to writers – I really love writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark, Donna Tartt. I recently read The Tooth Fairy, by Graham Joyce, which I thought was fantastic. And I loved One, by Conrad Williams. And obviously – as you can probably guess – I’m a big fan of Nicholas Royle. There are some excellent writers coming out of Manchester and the North West at the moment too – Jenn Ashworth, Chris Killen, Joe Stretch. When it comes to films – I really like David Cronenberg, the Coen Brothers, Robert Rodriguez. I’ve only just got around to watching District 9, which was really very good. The best film that I’ve seen recently though would have to be Four Lions, I think.
3:AM: Finally, and I’ve never asked a writer this, do you scare yourself?
TF: I think that I scared myself a bit when I wrote a short story – The Safe Children – that was recently published by Nightjar Press. That was very dark. Whereas The Leaping – I didn’t really scare myself with that, no, although I was already scared of a lot of the things in it, if that makes sense. I mean – existing fears motivated me.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the author of Let Me Die a Woman, published by Pulp Press. If he looks hungover, he probably is.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 7th, 2010.