Interview with Kim Newman by Robert-James Barker

(Editor’s Note: these interviews date 2001-2009, so some information may not be current)

Interviewing someone in person is remarkably stressful. Especially when it’s someone you really admire and Kim Newman is one of my favourite authors. So, here’s me, a bit lost in London (which, strangely, smelt of dead things) flustered, nervous and watching the sky waiting for the heavens to open and drown me. It was that sort of ominous sky that hung above the city, or maybe it was smog and it’s always there. Anyway, by the time I finally got to Mr Newmans flat I was sweating and nervous and managed to fumble opening the door.

Plus the fact that the enormity of London had overwhelmed me and left me unable to find anything as simple as tapes for the Dictaphone, so if I misquote it’s entirely my fault due to my incredibly bad handwriting.

The flat itself was relatively modern, though it was hard to see the walls for books. Walking into Kim’s house was like entering a second hand book store, thousands of books, each one creased and read, and as I was to find out, absorbed.

Kim’s obsessions with the vampire started early in his life, though he’s quick to add that it wasn’t just the vampire, it was all monsters and this fascination is borne out by the array of plastic creatures crawling across bookshelves in his study. There’s also a Dracula set of shelves which made my eyes bulge and my fingers develop a shoplifters twitch.

We went for Lunch and Kim had venison stew, something the fitted perfectly with his Edwardian styled clothing and trademark facial hair. Although that makes the man sound wilfully eccentric which he’s not, there’s a very definite sense that he is just Kim Newman, not a manufactured media personality.

As we chatted Kim filled me in on Anno Dracula though the conversation quickly branched out, his knowledge of genre fiction and film is encyclopaedic. In Anno Dracula there is a definite sense of impish joy and Kim confirmed that he enjoyed writing it, “I enjoy writing everything I do, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.” And he’s done a lot; Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron and Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha (AKA “A Judgement of Tears”) and the forthcoming collection of shorts plus one unpublished Novella, will most concern our readers.

Newman has also published Jago, The Night Mayor, Life’s Lottery, the Quorum, The Original Doctor Shade, Famous Monsters, Seven Stars and a host of non fiction books. As well as this he also writes under the name of Jack Yoevil, though he says the pen name was for no particular reason as he rates those books equally as much (and some more) as he rates the books written under his own name. He’s a busy man and tries to write about two thousand words a day, he has no rituals tied to his writing but like most writers I’ve spoken to often finds himself slipping into the heads of his characters and losing time, “I suppose I do go into a fugue state, and I always fall in love a little with my leading ladies, I think you have to”.

Anno Dracula has it’s genesis in a thesis about late Victorian apocalyptic narratives, as a footnote within the thesis Kim had written “Dracula is an invasion narrative, although the invasion is only one man,” Anno Dracula’s fearsome (and humourous) reinvention was formed from that seed.

“The vampire is a metaphor with many meanings, which is true of all cultural Icons. The Golem is the Golem, where the Vampire can be whatever you wish it to be.” I asked if he believed vampires actually existed “no, and I don’t care,” Anno Dracula is as much a work of satire as a work of horror, Newman has used the vampires as his ciphers, code touching on literature through the ages.

He’s not interested in eternal life either, “I don’t believe in capital punishment so even killing bad people is out for me, so no, if Dracula offered me a chance.”

He touched briefly on the fact that the trilogy was multi layered – you could read as much into it as you wanted. He then backed off, slightly embarrassed, he’s a very modest man and seemed a little embarrassed by praise. But I think he was right, the books can be simply a rip-roaring read or can be read deeper, to find the clues and hints to influences and interests of the author himself (for instance, he told me all the police in the first book are real names from the police who worked on the actual Jack the Ripper case, and he often does things like this).

He’s actually quite daunting, I consider myself reasonably well read and able to keep up with most people I know with ease, Kim Newman was way beyond me. His mind is a literary trap; he skips from Shakespeare to Italian horror films, obscure pop (“Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha” is the name of a song) to the fiction of James Ellroy. In the forward of the short story collection “Seven Stars”, Steven Jones (editor of many successful horror anthologies) says, “He has always been there when I have needed him – with a helpful piece of obscure information, a copy of an impossibly rare video, or just the short story I need”. After talking to Kim I can imagine how true this is, it made him difficult to keep up with at times, but no less an enthralling speaker.

It also made for some difficult choices for Kim, favourite author? “There are so many, I don’t know how anyone can have one favourite author,” desert island vampire books? “I am legend,” no hesitancy with that one, “Vampire Tapestry, Revenants is good, Fever Dream, Empire of Fear, Carmilla,” he looks downcast, “there are so many, I could go on forever and I’d still forget some.” He laughs.

The Anno Dracula world is populated by people we all know and love, Inspector Lestrade, crops up, various actors and actresses, Mr Hyde and Dr Jeckyll amongst many others, although some of them are way past the copyright laws still applying I wondered how he coped with the more modern characters.

“Copyright was never a problem, probably because I approached the characters with satiric intent,” but Hamish instead of James Bond? “I did that by choice, there were a few things I wanted to do with him that James Bond wouldn’t.”

From there we moved onto writing, Kim is a member of the HWA (Horror Writers Assocation) like myself and I wanted to know if he thought this was a necessary step for writers starting out, “not really, no. I mean, it can be useful,” then he said in a conspiratory tone “I just like to read all the gossip”.

He approaches his novels in a head on manner, “I usually know the end, then I just have to work out how to get there.” He doesn’t usually do chapter planners or strict guides and you get the feeling that he lets his characters guide the story to it’s conclusion. Although we only briefly touched on it he does research his books, he doesn’t just make everything up. Although he chooses not to use the net as a research tool. “There’s too much information and it’s hard to know what’s reliable and what isn’t. Neither does he see the net as a problem for writers in the future.

“A book is a machine and it’s very good at what it does, better than a computer or a laptop, you can’t read from a computer in the bath or stick it in your pocket to read in the park. If something old is better than something new then…” he lets it hang although the conclusion is obvious. He’s not worried about net piracy, “I don’t think it will have any more impact than books being stolen from shops has. No one really wants to read a novel off a screen. It may affect people like Stephen King, but he’s rich enough not to care anyway.”

Kim recommend new writers start with the fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Jeckyll and Hyde is a great plot, from there try mid twentieth century crime fiction, it will teach you not to overwrite. But the best advice is to write stories, read a lot, find old ideas and try and think of ways no one has done them before. Everyone has there own way of doing things.”

Before I leave I ask him what he’s got planned for the future “an occult nourish thriller with Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff.” I ask him if he will revisit the Anno Dracula world. “I may, I don’t want to outstay my welcome like some writers do.” How would you go back seeing as you killed Dracula in “Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha”.

He looks at me with a twinkle in his eye, “Dracula was always dead.”

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