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Well Versed in the Uncanny: An interview with Nicholas Royle

Interviewed by Alan Kelly.

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“So fables say the Goatsucker moves, masked from men’s sight
In an ebony air, on wings of witch cloth,
Well-named, ill-famed a knavish fly-by-night.”

- Sylvia Plath, ‘Goatsucker’

Nicholas Royle‘s new independent press Nightjar Press specialises in single-story chapbooks. The stories within these slim volumes are uncanny, eerie, intelligent and typically Nightjarish. Nicholas talks to me about authors he’d like to publish, the decline of the short story in print, his work as a literary agent and all other kinds of uncanny things.

3:AM: Do you approach authors, is it invitational or do you send a call out for submissions?

Nicholas Royle: It started because I read a story a friend sent me that I wanted to publish. The friend was Michael Marshall Smith, the story What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night. There was a nice symmetry to it because about 20 years ago I sent up Egerton Press to publish an anthology called Darklands after Mike had sent me a story called ‘The Dark Land’. So then I asked Tom Fletcher if he wanted to do a story. The next two – Joel Lane and Alison Moore – were also invitees and now I’m getting a few people asking me if they can submit stories and I’ve been saying yes. So far I haven’t accepted anything that’s not been of my own instigation, but that will change at some point, I’m sure.

3:AM: So far Nightjar Press has published four chapbooks, all worth reading if you enjoy creepy, intelligent, uncanny stories with an eerie malevolence running through their veins. What are your long-term plans for Nightjar Press?

NR: Long-term plans are to keep going with the current pattern. Two in the autumn, two in the spring. But only as long as there are good enough stories to do. It’s expensive in terms of time and money and I will only do it with stories I really, really want to publish. It’s not a money-making venture, that’s for sure.

3:AM: What other writers have you lined up to write chapbooks? Are there any particular writers you’d like to have on-board?

NR: I’ve got another story by Tom Fletcher, which I may do this autumn, or might keep till next year. And there’s another story I’m considering at the moment. Beyond that, there are certain writers who write the kind of stories that would fit – Alison MacLeod, Adam Marek, Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, Clare Wigfall, Conrad Williams and many others. It’s perhaps invidious to name just a few. Shelley Jackson, Christopher Burns, M John Harrison, James Lasdun, Christopher Kenworthy. And many others.

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3:AM: You’re Tom Fletcher’s mentor and agent, after he sought you out. You read the first drafts of his work (which later became The Leaping) and decided to become an agent. Will you continue to work as an agent now, with your own writing and running an independent publishing house?

NR: I’ll certainly continue to work as a solo agent – I represent a few other authors in addition to Tom – but I’m not looking to expand. My client David Rose has a superb debut novel out early next year from Salt called Vault. That will be followed by his entertainingly titled collection Posthumous Stories. A few other clients have work out in submission – fingers crossed. But to expand the agency would impact on the time available for my writing, which already suffers, most noticeably from the pressure of the lecturing job at MMU.

3:AM: Nicholas, Nightjar Press specialises in producing single short-story chapbooks by individual authors. Why only single-story chapbooks? Will Nightjar Press publish short story collections or novellas somewhere down the line?

NR: I love short stories and think they deserve the same status as novellas or novels – to be published singly within card covers. That’s not to say I don’t like collections and anthologies. I do, very much so. But I remember coming across a Joel Lane story, The Foggy, Foggy Dew, published as a chapbook by Mark Valentine in 1986. I read the story first in its reprinted form the following year (in The Year’s Best Horror Stories XV edited by the late Karl Edward Wagner) then got hold of the chapbook. It was my introduction both to the work of Joel Lane, who became one of my favourite writers, and to chapbook publishing. A couple of years later I started up a little publishing operation of my own called Egerton Press. I did a couple of anthologies, Darklands and Darklands 2, and a collection of Joel’s stories, The Earth Wire. I didn’t do any chapbooks. But last year I realised I’d been missing the particular buzz you get from publishing and I decided to have a go at chapbooks. Inspired by the Joel Lane chapbook and others I’d acquired over the years – Giacomo’s Juliet by Christpher Burns (Clarion Tales), Being a Greek by David Rose (Black Bile Press) – I decided to do single stories only. I have no plans to do collections or novellas, but I’ll carry on doing the stories as long as I can sell them. When I’ve done enough to fill a book, maybe someone will want to reprint them, but I doubt I would want to do that myself. We’ll see.

3:AM: Do you think there has been a decline in the publication of short story anthologies? If so, would this be one of the reasons you founded Nightjar, to get the short form to a wider readership?

NR: There’s no doubt that fewer mainstream anthologies are being published and that’s a great shame, although there’s plenty of activity in the horror genre and among small presses. I can’t claim to be reaching a wide readership with the Nightjar Press chapbooks – with editions of only 200 and 300 so far – but the venture is born out of a genuine love for the short story. It’s my favourite form, both as a reader and as a writer.

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3:AM: What are your thoughts on online publishing, in relation to the short story? Do you think a lot of writers are selling themselves short – allowing their work to be published for free when there is a paying market?

NR: I will always prefer print to online, as a writer and as a reader, but there are some good sites. Publishing direct to iPhone is interesting. I sometimes read stuff on my iPhone if it comes in as an email attachment and I’m away somewhere and I need to read whatever it is, but print is always preferable. I like the tactile quality of a book or a chapbook. I like the fact it takes up room on a shelf. As for allowing work to be published for free, I still sometimes contribute stories to editors who are not in a position to pay. If it’s a good publication, or in a good cause. No one – or hardly anyone – writes short stories to make money.

3:AM: How important, in your opinion, is it for writers to attend conventions like WHC and Fantasycon. Is it absolutely essential that writers of weird fiction, slipstream, horror, science fiction and fantasy go along and if so, why?

NR: Not essential at all, but can be useful, even very useful. I remember the first time I attended one I was almost paralysed with nerves and social inadequacy. You hover at the edge of groups, hoping to be invited to join a conversation. It’s grim, unless you’re a lot more confident than I was when I was starting out. I don’t get nerves now, but I’m just as socially inadequate. I’m more comfortable sitting to one side taking sneaky photographs of people in the bar.

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[Pic: Nicholas Royle]

3:AM: Apart from Nightjar Press, are there any of your own projects you’d like to talk about – anthologies you might be editing, fiction of your own or any new writers I should be reading?

NR: I’m editing an anthology of uncanny/Gothic bird stories for a Scottish publisher, Two Ravens Press. It’s a charity project for the RSPB and Birdlife International. I love birds and have been writing bird stories myself for two or three years with a view to doing a collection at some point. In the meantime, I had this idea to edit an anthology. It’s a mix of new stories and reprints, including Du Maurier’s The Birds and The Gannets by the great Anna Kavan. I’m working on this at the moment; publication will be the second half of 2011. I’m trying to finish a novel I’ve been writing for about six years. Writers you should be reading. Let me recommend Alice Thompson. I’ve just read (and reviewed for the Independent) her latest novel, The Existential Detective (Two Ravens Press, again). She’s an amazing writer, well versed in the uncanny, very far from ordinary. I loved her second novel, Pandora’s Box, which reminded me strongly of my favourite living writer, Steve Erickson, and her fourth, The Falconer, which pushed lots of buttons for me – birds, falconry, the uncanny, surrealism (the Magritte cover). She’s one of those contemporary authors whose new work I have to read the moment it comes out, if not before.

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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, July 12th, 2010.