Amanda Gowin and Craig Wallwork
Ed. Note: Bad People by Craig Wallwork is now available on Amazon. The sequel, Labyrinth of Dolls, will be available this Summer, 2020. This conversation spans April and May, 2020.
An Interview with Bad People Author Craig Wallwork
Amanda Gowin, Menacing Hedge: What’s your favorite part of the day in this new world? And related, what part of the day do you miss most from the old world?
Craig Wallwork: 4.PM. That’s time when the kids and my wife break off from what they’re doing and we all go for a walk around the local area, then home for a game of Cluedo. Since lockdown, we’ve been forced to find places we’ve never walked before, places with strange names like Manshead Hill, Far Slack and Light Hazels. The kids pick wild flowers and find their names on the internet. Yesterday there was common dog violet, cow parsley, wood anemone, forget-me-nots and daffodil. They then press each between the pages of books. I read recently that flower pressing dates back to 16th Century, when flowers was used to create images; leaves become mountains, white petals, snow, that kind of thing. So hopefully, once they’re dried out, my children will do something similar, rendering the daffodil into a sun, cow parsley into sheep. And yeah, Cluedo because it’s the best board game ever. I do miss driving to work though. It was the one time I could listen to audiobooks uninterrupted. Save for exploring new ideas, driving is wasted time. But as a vessel to be regaled with narrative, it’s a perfect quiet spot in a fast moving world.
MH: What euphemism do you recommend using when we look back on our Quarantine Days, and before? Covid Days sounds like a street fair. The Old World sounds geographical. Have we heard or created the right language for it yet? The words for it might be born in interpretation.
CW: That’s a difficult one. Shame George Orwell isn’t around. He would have nailed it. Let me think... Predistantia, maybe for before Covid. Both Latin. Pre meaning before, distantia for distance. Paranoium for post Covid because let’s face it, anyone coughs within three feet and you’re going to tear their eyes out. Or keep it simple and called it PrePan and PostPan. As you can see, this is why I don’t write science fiction.
MH: Now that you’re working on the sequel to Bad People, what differences are there in your process/writing schedule with this book?
CW: You know those “best before” stickers on food packaging? Books should come with them. A lot of people buy books, shelve them, sometimes with no intention of ever turning the first page. The sticker idea works because it’d force the reader not to stockpile or hoard before the book spoils. If you read it before the best before date, the ink stays because it’s exposed to air. If not, the ink fades over time. This principle is what I’ve adopted for the new book because it forms part of a crime/horror series, the first being Bad People. That’s why I’ve given myself a best before date, which is May 31st. If I go beyond that, I’ve got it in my head that the story will sour. But in keeping momentum, it remains fresh, palatable. This isn’t like NaNoWriNo, which I think is counter productive to the writing process because the time spent in editing, rewriting and making it work, probably takes a similar amount of time to write a book without tight frames. It’s more about being realistic, but also keeping this fresh, not just for me, but for the reader. The hope is to have the book available to buy by summer.
MH: Are there any special things you try to keep in mind when building on characters or situations where some readers are coming in for the second time, but others are coming in fresh, without context?
There are some things I try to keep universal so anyone dropping in can identity with instantly. In Bad People, I only scratched the veneer of detective Tom Nolan’s loneliness. There’s an overwhelming need for him to find love, and more importantly, to be loved, but he suffers under the shadow of self doubt. This manifested subtly in the first book with his need to please the mother of the missing child, and also his wistfulness when observing a young couple entering the maternity ward toward the end of the book. While it’s clear he is a loner, there’s a depth to his character I wanted to explore further in the second book. The hope is that people will feel enough for the character that they’ll want to see him happy. Themes of acceptance, of isolation, are present in a lot of my work. Perhaps that’s because for such a long time I felt those things in my own life. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that writers write smaller versions of themselves in their work. Therefore, I think it’s safe to say Tom Nolan is that part of my past where I felt the most lonely. This is why I wanted to develop those themes further, to show how much love he has but cannot find anyone to offer it to. For me, there is more to be had in a character’s personal journey, than that of plot alone.
MH: Do you cheat on your novel with short stories? Has the way you write outside the structure of your novels changed as well, since I would assume you write your novels with a somewhat structured outline?
CW: I’m monogamous when it comes to writing. If I’m committed to a novel, rarely do I stray into short story territory. I couldn’t cope with that switching of voice. I still get ideas – impure thoughts of other stories – but I don’t act upon them until I’ve at least finished the first draft. I’m like that with most things. It’s hard for me to multitask. Like now, I’ve broken away from decorating the house to write this during the small window I have before we eat dinner. Most people may take their time with such a task as decorating. But once I’m committed to it, that’s me done until the end. I hate it, if I’m being honest. I feel sick before any large undertaking because I know I’ll hit the boards running and put too much pressure on myself in getting it right. That’s why I could never do what Malerman did with Carpenter’s Farm; to know that it is being read before it’s finished scares the crap out me. However, the organic nature of writing something without an end doesn’t phase me. That’s how I write all my work. I don’t really outline in the Craig Clevenger way; writing timelines, marking off calendars, and adorning walls with post it notes and press clippings etc. The only outlining I do is creating small scenes in my head for each of the three acts. It’s that film makers perspective I have on all my stories; they’re mostly just a collection of conversations between characters in strange settings. All I do is transcribe them. So while a book like Bad People might seem like it had a lot of outlining, there was minimal tangible work done. That approach didn’t change in the sequel either, Labyrinth of Dolls, and I can’t see it changing for any future projects, too. I’m no John Updike who has to have that final sentence written down before he can begin his novel. I’m more like Stephen King, meandering from one key scene to the other.
MH: Do you garden?
CW: When we first moved to the cottage, the previous tenants let the garden overgrow; knee-high grass, bramble and thistles, that kind of thing. They said we would never have a garden because it was essentially wasteland. For the first year I spent the summer landscaping; hacking down the grass with a petrol strimmer, digging out weeds and large rocks. The lawn saw off three mowers before it got to a stage whereby the kids could run on it in bare feet. Slowly, the grass turned from shades of brown to lime. We purchased a coop and two chickens named Mable and Able whose wings were clipped so they couldn’t fly away, but had free rule over the garden. They gave us eggs and chased my daughter. Wild ivy was untangled from a large fuchsia bush, the neighbour built a new fence. We now have plum trees lining one side, a large evergreen in the centre, all of which overlooks farmland speckled with sheep in the winter and brown cows in the summer. This year, because we have time, there are terracotta pots growing strawberries, dahlia, gladioli, iris and begonia. I enjoy the task of creation, to begin with little or something ugly, and in time seeing it grow and turn beautiful. It’s about foresight; knowing where to plant so flowers have space to grow. Knowing what to trim and control. It’s like writing in that respect. It’s also seeing the future in the present and enjoying the sounds of nature. So yes, I garden because I’ve invested so much, and it’s a place for play.
MH: Have you had any luck with strawberries? I find them intimidating to begin.
CW: We have feisty sparrows and blue tits that never allow our strawberries to ripen. It’s the same with our plum tree; we rarely yield fruit because all the birds feast on them before we do. I should buy a cloche and protect them. All I will say is, the birdsong is greater for our sacrifice.
MH: What are you reading/listening to currently? Books, audiobooks, music etc. Do your tastes get restless in transitional times, like spring, or lockdown, or finishing a book?
CW: Since finishing the first draft of Labyrinth of Dolls, I’ve ripped through Lolita, True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik, and currently binging on both Exorcist Road and Exorcist Falls by Jonathan Janz. All the aforesaid books are very dark - really, check out True Crime, it’ll singe your eyeballs - so seasons don’t affect me. I just go through trends. So now, I’m about to embark on a horror trip. I’m also watching a lot of horror too. Lockdown is forcing me to order more movies off the internet because I’ve pretty much exhausted all Netflix options. My last batch was Robert Egger’s The Witch, Slither (which I class as one of only a few zombie movies where the origins of the walking dead are explained), Nina Forever, Deep Red, Eyes Without a Face, and The Changeling (the George C Scott version). Now I’m constantly thinking about writing a great horror novel like The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a good time to be in this world. Writers like Josh Malerman and Paul Tremblay have crossed over from Indie to mainstream. There’s a biopic about Shirley Jackson due for release, and writers like Jac Jemc (finalist for the PEN) and Alma Katsu are making some serious waves in the literary horror world.
MH: Last question. This might be kind of cheesy, but I think it’s safe to say we’re pretty sentimental folks - when we began, we were both in the middle of quarantine. Now at the end of May, things are shakily going from full-stop to the beginnings of some changed version of life, again. Is there anything in particular that you’ve done/learned as part of your quarantine routine that you want to adapt into your new daily life and routine going forward?
CW: Lockdown has been a welcome relief from having to expend energy performing normal day to day routines, and/or adopting the demeanour of a person who is comfortable and relaxed in most situations. I’m not usually comfortable, but appear to the casual observer that I am. So since being at home, I’ve been able to hang up the skin I wear daily on the peg beside my coat. In doing so, it’s been nice getting to know myself again, realising I don’t need to fill a lull in conversation, crack a joke, or adorn my face with a smile. Lockdown to me is the dressing room, and I’m there before the mirror framed in lightbulbs wiping away the greasepaint. So when going back to work, or being around others, I’d like to remember that it’s okay to be me, the more honest version of me. If I can do that, then that’s the silver lining I’ll take from this whole experience. I’ll also retain the evening walks with the family, slowing down to appreciate life, to observe my children in play, to do nothing, to know shops are not a weekend necessity, to never take for granted hugging my parents, or someone serving me a coffee. I’ll always appreciate a beach, a public swimming pool, a park. But more importantly, knowing that for a while we allowed the world to heal, and that regardless of what happens in the future, we should never abuse such beauty again, because COVID taught us it was possible to make right our wrongs.