Guest-blog: SIMON KURT UNSWORTH

Simon Kurt Unsworth is a relative newcomer, but, even so, he has already had a World Fantasy Award nomination to his credit, as well as numerous appearances in anthologies such as Passion for the Art of Taxidermy (BBC Online), At Ease with the Dead (Ash-Tree), Gaslight Grotesque (Edge Publications), and The Black Book of Horror (Mortbury Press). His current collection, Lost Places (Ash-Tree), was published to coincide with this year’s World Horror Convention, held in Brighton. He is currently working on his first novel. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Ben somewhere considerably further north than I do.

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Write me a guest blog, he says. Talk about why you write, how you came to start and maybe include a few tips, lessons you’ve learned on the way, that kind of thing. You’ve got about a thousand words. And I, like a fool, say, Okay! and then wonder precisely what it is I have to say that’s of interest or use to anyone. Well, my wife reckons she enjoys my blog and my mother always claims she’s interested in this kind of stuff, so that’s two people, I suppose. Oh well, here goes… So why write? Really? What’s the point of it all? Well, for me at least, the answer is fairly simple: it keeps me sane.

I don’t mean that in a faux dramatic, back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead-and-make-with-with-an-agonised-but-faraway-and-curiously-attractive-expression kind of way, I mean it literally. Now, I have always written, and have always submitted my stuff for consideration (unsuccessfully), because the stories are in my head and I’m arrogant enough to think that, if they seem good in my head and I can get them out, then someone else will like them as well. The real writing, though, the stuff I’ve been doing since about 2002 and which seems to have been successful (in that it’s been published and gets mostly good feedback and reviews), that stuff is more than just words poked into a laptop; it’s a safety valve and a coping mechanism. When I started writing ‘properly’ (way before the world went broke and disappeared up its own ascending staircase), I was commuting daily on the train between my home town of Lancaster and Liverpool, two journeys that between them took about 4 hours of my day when they went well. And going well was not guaranteed, not at all, oh no… I found that reading even my favourite books or listening to music wasn’t enough when things were delayed (and they were, almost every day, to some greater or lesser degree – have I mentioned that? Every. Damned. Day), that it was too easy to stare out of the window at the world outside, wishing I was at home, that my life was different, that I didn’t need to make these stupid, stupid journeys every day. That level of anger, coupled with the sheer exhaustion I was feeling, was unsustainable, and I had what might legitimately be called a minor breakdown. No screams, no tears, no men in coats or padded rooms, just a helpless, miserable feeling and a sense that if I saw another train ever again, I might curl into a ball and never, ever come out.

Sound overly dramatic? Yeah, it does to me now, but at the time it’s how I felt. I used the time I had away from work to try to figure out my life. I started at the point, I have a mortgage, a wife, and we need money.  I needed my job and didn’t want to drive every day so the trains, it seemed, were to be a necessary evil. The question was, how to cope with them? And the answer was writing. I decided that I would use the train journeys to write, to finally set my mind to the thing that I had wanted to do and be attempting intermittently all my adult and most of my pre-adult life.

Of course, the first thing I did was to write a novel. No, really. My thinking behind the type of novel I wrote was simple: no one, thought I, was making the kind of movies I wanted to watch or writing the kind of books I liked to read, i.e. good, scare the living crap out of you ghost stories. Now, before you all start having a go, I know that the small press were active at the time, publishing many fine stories by many fine authors, but I didn’t know that then, I only know it in hindsight. At the time, the only bright light in what felt like a particularly gloomy firmament was the Japanese movie Ringu, which reminded me just what a good ghost story is capable of and how smart and purely flesh-crawling they can be. That’s it! I thought, and that’s what I resolved to write and, for better or for worse, it’s what I’ve carried on trying to create. Well, okay, not precisely  always: I’ve taken some sideways steps into creature features, into tales about zombies or snowmen or demons who fish the children out of our suburbs, but at their heart my stories are all horror stories, intended to frighten and upset, to recreate in my readers the feelings that I had the first time I read M. R. James’ ghost stories or King’s ‘Salem’s Lot or T.E.D. Klein’s Children of the Kingdom, or saw Ringu or The Haunting (you guess which version) or Them! or The Thing (guess which version again, kids). I suspect I haven’t managed it yet, but give me time, give me time…

Even now, when I’m in a far better place in my life, I write because it helps me. I’m still happily married, I have a son and a different job (one that I love), but I still use trains to travel, crisscrossing the country at the whim of Virgin and various other companies, and writing is still something I do to keep the journeys bearable and stop me sitting and fuming and experiencing a slow, irritable burn out. I’m lucky that writing is something that happens fairly easily for me when I’m in transit, lost inside my iPod as England floats past outside the windows, and the hours just race by. Some of my ambivalent feelings about trains have made it into my stories, as have a lot of the fears, paranoias and excitements that fill my life. It’s a thing that most writers do, I think: give shape, however obscure, to the things that are swirling around inside their heads with the words that they shove onto the page.  I can’t keep my fears at bay, necessarily, or stop them happening; no, but I can write about worse things in readiness! After all, what’s dealing with a difficult five year old after you’ve thought through the end of the world a couple of times? Actually, don’t answer that.

And what tips can I give aspiring or active writers? Well, I could tell you that the most useful thing I did was to go to creative writing classes, as they made me focus on telling stories with limited wordage, to specific themes and, probably most importantly, to show what I produced to people who wouldn’t normally read the kind of stuff I write. There’s nothing quite like having a poet tear your story apart, sometimes literally word by word, or having a writer of historical romances point out 4 or 5 glaring military inaccuracies in your terrifying World War II-set horror tale to make you concentrate far more not just on the ideas but also the form, content and function of what you’re writing. Or I could tell you that should read submission guidelines really carefully, and make sure what you submit fits the criteria to prevent yours and the editor’s time being wasted. Perhaps I could mention that you ought to value your rejections. No, honestly! After my first story was published, nominated for a World Fantasy Award, taken for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and then the Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New Horror, it was quite easy to think, Well, that’s it, I’ve made it, here I am horror world, embrace me and love me! And each rejection after it has stopped me getting arrogant, has reminded me that I still have things to learn, that I can still improve and expand and get better, that there are no easy rides or free passes. If I want this, I have to work at it. Plus, valuing the rejections (note that I don’t say Like your rejections here – I’m not that stupid) means that I also still value the acceptances. There’s very little as exciting in this world than getting that email saying, Yes, we like this, it’s in. Even if it’s the smallest anthology, for no money, the fact that someone else likes your work is (and always should be) a moment of excitement and validation. No, that’s not strong enough: it’s a complete blast.

I think that brings me to the best piece of advice I can give you, actually: whatever you write, whatever it’s for, whatever the deadline, whatever difficulties the piece puts in your way, remember to enjoy it. Even at its worst, writing is, for me, the most fun I can have without company. This is a great thing that we do, when we write, liberating, emotional and downright damned good fun. Don’t ever forget that, don’t ever let that out of your sight, and then, when the words fight back and the plot sticks and the characters seem contrived and it reads badly and the fucking thing just won’t damn well work, you can always say to yourself: stop moaning, this is fun, and you’ll feel better.

Trust me on this.

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Lost Places can be purchased from either Simon himself (he can be contacted through http://simonkurtunsworth.wordpress.com/) or direct from the publishers, Ash-Tree. My review of the collection can be found here.

Many thanks to Simon for taking the time to write this!!! =)

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4 Responses to “Guest-blog: SIMON KURT UNSWORTH”

  1. Excellent essay, Simon!

  2. Andrew Murray Says:

    that was wonderful! very honest, enjoyable & inspiring. gave me a kick up the arse i needed to focus more on my own fiction. loved it!

  3. Great piece! And I fully agree about the rejection slips and the acceptances – some good advice there.

  4. Riju Ganguly Says:

    That was a typical Simon Kurt Unsworth piece. Honest, straight-forward, gripping, and touching. I hope many other dreamers can take hope from his words and succeed in sharing their dreams & nightmares with us.

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