"To Hell with Dante" is a collection of cynical afterlife stories, ranging from comedic genius to dark surrealism. To help kick off this fine anthology, I'll be conducting interviews with many of the contributors. Today I'm interviewing Colin Fisher, the talented author who contributed the story "The Early Shift." Thank you for being here, Colin.
COLIN FISHER: Thanks for asking me!
MTI: Starting off, could you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
CF: Sure. I live on the outskirts of London, England, and manage finance systems for a living. It isn’t hugely stressful, which is great because I’m a firm believer in keeping the work / life balance tipped in my favour. Before that I managed bookshops, which was a lot more fun but less ideal for keeping the wolf from the door. I’m married to a wonderful wife, and have two fantastic (and grown up) children – and they probably wouldn’t thank me for calling them children! My first love is archaeology, that’s what I’m qualified in, but never made any serious efforts to make a profession out of it.
MTI: Now, getting down to business; what first compelled you to weave fiction, and what's your favorite type of story to write?
CF: That’s an interesting question, and strangely not one I’ve ever thought about. I’ve been obsessed with telling stories ever since I was a child. I would make up stories to tell my older brother when I was probably no older than 5 or 6, and as soon as I learned to write I wanted to set them down on paper, or write sequels to my favourite novels. I’ve no idea where that came from. No-one else in my family tried writing, neither my parents nor my brother. My mother is a voracious reader, though, and I certainly picked that up. When I was growing up I would also play long, solitary games in purely imaginary worlds. I liked nothing better to escape into our spare room and create elaborate adventures with whatever toys seemed most suitable. I think storytelling is just an extension of that.
MTI: Tell me, if you had to pick just one author who has influenced or inspired you, who would it be?
CF: Well, this is a nightmare question, I can’t possible pick one! I’ll set aside the obvious – Tolkien, who I read obsessively from about the age of nine – and try and pick someone else that filled my childhood with magic, because I’m a firm believer that the books we read when children are the most important of all. So, either Alan Garner for his vision and sense of place, or Susan Cooper, because The Dark is Rising is pretty much my perfect ‘English’ fantasy novel.
MTI: Your story, The Early Shift, appears in To Hell with Dante, tell us a little bit about that. What's the general idea behind it?
CF: I’d previously written a story in which a psychopath uses a magical grimoire to summon a diabolical entity. After I’d written it, I found myself interested in the origin of the creature. Where did it come from? Are all these demons and devils just sitting around, waiting for mortals to undertake a ritual or sell their souls? Don’t they have anything better to do? That’s where the idea for the Exchange came from. They’re a bit like career politicians; juniors, the timeservers, go-getters. Everyone just concerned about their position. That was my starting point, although ultimately I went in a slightly different direction. I did throw in a reference to the grimoire from the first story though, as a sort of cheeky self referential nod!
MTI: Does your story hold any special significance, perhaps seeking to provoke some thoughts about the afterlife, or was it just a lot of fun fiction?
CF: Well, it’s mostly a lighthearted and (hopefully) fun story, but there is a serious point behind it about the nature of evil. That oft quoted banality, the tedious and casual routine of efficient slaughter, and the mindset that creates. Also, the nonsense of viewing people you’re screwing over as ‘customers’ was something I found somewhat relevant as well. There were lots of angles I could have taken, but I didn’t want to labour the point or detract from the humour. It’s not meant to be a horror story, even though it might give you pause for thought.
MTI: Okay, on a totally unrelated note, if you could meet and talk with any one deceased person, who would it be?
CF: I’m most fascinated by outsiders, people who live their life completely in the service of their own vision, with little regard to conventional morality, the opinion of society, or the consequences of their actions. I’m not really interested in kings, plenipotentiaries or potentates. So, someone like Shelley for his impractical romanticism, sense of injustice and total disregard for contemporary mores. Or Jack Parsons, for so comprehensively uniting science and magic in his actions and imagination. Or one of the early English Antiquarians, like John Aubrey or William Stukely, for being the first to recognise the value of heritage and ancient sites, and taking the effort to travel the country recording it.
Gosh, I’m really no good at this ‘picking one thing’ lark, am I? One person? Ok, forget the ‘not interested in Kings’ thing. King Arthur, whoever and whatever he was. For being the only legendary figure where we can possibly reach back through the mist to the person behind it. Was he a Romanised Briton holding the fragments of a crumbling province together? A Celtic resistance fighter? A pre-Roman leader? Actually, whatever he was, he probably wasn’t a king, so that still holds.
MTI: Great answer! I'd love to know the "true" King Arthur, too. Shifting back to your writing, can you tell us a little about what you're working on right now?
CF: Sure. I’m trying to get my head around a children’s book at the moment. I wanted to attempt something in the vein of the authors mentioned above, sort of ‘rural fantasy’ as opposed to urban fantasy, which is bandwaggoning (NB – possibly not a real word) at such an alarming rate I’m not sure I’d have much to add to it, even though I really enjoy the genre. I have my characters, but they’re currently somewhat directionless, and having just moved house I haven’t had the time over the summer to devote the attention that it will need. I’m also working on an adult story about the theft of a family heirloom which will tie into the children’s book, hopefully. Plus an sf short which I’ve been working on for about eighteen months. Unfortunately, I haven’t done myself any favours with the subject – it’s about a young genius, which means that for every page I write I have to do four hours research to make it sound even vaguely convincing, since I’m neither young nor a genius.
MTI: Other than your piece appearing in To Hell with Dante, do you have any other stories being published in the near future?
CF: I have a couple of stories forthcoming from Fringeworks Press here in the
. A couple of years ago they published a
Christmas themed horror collection, ‘Ain’t No Sanity Clause’, that I had a
story in. Contributors were invited to a follow up, ‘Sanity Clause is Coming’,
which is in layout at the moment and should be out at the beginning of November.
My story is called ‘The Escape Goat’, and takes place during a school nativity
play. That one’s definitely not light hearted! Further off… Fringeworks are
also publishing a set of three books in their Grimm series called Red, Black
and White, each themed around a single well known fairy tale (Red Riding Hood,
Cinderella, and Snow White). Mine is ‘Snow White, Throat White’ and will be in
volume three. It’s not really about Snow White at all actually, so I’m
surprised it was accepted. It was more about trying to devise a realistic
(well, as realistic as fantasy gets) canvas for the story – ‘how would this
work in reality.’ At one time my notes on the political machinations of the
various kingdoms covered more pages than the story itself. I’m looking forward
to the Red volume the most, as my daughter has a superb story in it. Finally,
although I haven’t contributed a story, I am editing a collection of reimagined
fairy tales for the same publisher, which is called Grimm and Grimmer vol 3.
We’re trying something a bit different as it will include an academic essay on
the Brothers Grimm and their cultural milieu, so we’ll have to see how that
goes. That should be out in a month or so. UK
MTI: On a lighter note, have you watched any good tv lately?
CF: It’s such an amazing time for tv, an explosion of talent and creativity. Some of the genre shows I’m watching are Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who (which has always been my favourite), and Once Upon A Time, and I’m looking forward to the new series of American Horror Story. On top of that True Detective was amazing, an astonishing synergy of script and performance. Last year I was gripped by Top of the Lake, a New Zealand set drama by Jane Campion, and I’m also really looking forward to the third series of the Danish / Swedish crime drama The Bridge. There are almost too many to keep up with, so I have to really pick and choose.
MTI: How about music?
CF: I guess I’d say I’m a rock fan at heart, but do have fairly eclectic tastes. As a rule, I don’t listen to a lot of blues, but I recently saw the Blues Pills at an instore in London, and they blew me away. Really great. But then, there’s so much great music. I love Porcupine Tree – ‘In Absentia’ was probably the best album of the 2000s for me – but they’re currently on a sabbatical while their leader Steven Wilson develops his solo career with similarly extraordinary albums. Wolf People are great, I love the whole psych rock / folk thing. The last Nightwish album was incredible. I never thought they’d top their work with Tarja Turunen, but Imaginaerum was just superb. Suede’s comeback album Blood Sports was fantastic, I’ve seen them a couple of times since it was released and they’re so cool. If I had to name one highlight of the last few years though, it would be Dead Can Dance. I never thought I’d get the chance to see them – their reunion tour in 2005 sold out in about five minutes, but a couple of years ago they announced a new album and tour, and we finally got to see them. The whole thing was sublime, almost spiritual. The sort of thing that sends shivers down your spine.
MTI: What are three of your favorite movies? You know, the ones that never get old.
CF: If I was stranded somewhere with no hope of rescue and only an HD tv for company I’d go for Alien, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and… something funny. It would be a toss up between Carry On Screaming, Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, or In the Loop. Or maybe Duck Soup. There you go. I can’t even stick to ‘pick three things.’
What I find interesting about all of them, and about every film that withstands multiple viewings, is that the salient element, whether that’s horror, or excitement or humour, or even the setting, just doesn’t – as you say – get old. It’s always there. Every time. Whatever that is, that’s the secret of a great movie. Those books you read again and again have it too.
MTI: Of course, writers are some of the most voracious readers these days. Tell me, have you run across any great pieces of literature lately?
CF: I’m just as likely to be reading non-fiction to be honest – a great piece of history or biography can have all the narrative pull of a compelling story. But if I had to limit myself to fiction… I loved Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, for its unbeatable air of Gothic romance and use of language. Then The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt was pretty much a cover to cover read. Terrific story, atmosphere and characterisation. Anything by Michael Gruber, but particularly Tropic of Night. Terrifying, brutal and evocative. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. The 14th Century has never been so chillingly portrayed. A modern Chaucer that builds to a doom laden and horrific denoument. I’m currently working my way through the Burton and Swinburne stories by Mark Hodder. So far, I’d put them on the top of the modern Steampunk pack, which is a genre I’ve loved ever since The Anubis Gates. For horror, standouts I’ve read of late would be House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill and The Terror by Dan Simmons. The former manages to combine the creepy olde English ambience of strange pagan ceremonies and crumbling villages with the pure visceral ghastliness of 70s horror films produced by the likes of Amicus and Tigon, whilst the latter – very different - is a fictional reconstruction of the fate of the Franklin Expedition, in which the crews of the two ships meet their fate at the hands of horrors both natural and unnatural. It’s an incredible, sustained assault on the reader’s peace of mind, and the book seems imbued with a palpable air of nightmarish torpor and frigidity from start to finish.
MTI: You have the attention of potential readers. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with them, or possibly a sales pitch to encourage them to read more of your writing?
CF: I try not to offer words of wisdom, it seems to me advice is so often context sensitive and if you don’t know the situation of the person in every particular you probably shouldn’t presume to provide it. Having said that – and I’m sure you could echo this – but since having started editing I’m astonished at the number of submissions I get that are guilty of quite basic mistakes. Things that you could avoid if you made even the most cursory investigation of writers’ blogs or online columns or workshops. So, for writers, alongside the usual ‘read books’ I’d add ‘read articles.’ Because chances are that not only has someone made the same mistakes you’re making, but someone else has provided some good tips for avoiding them. As an example, the Snow White story I mentioned above has a lengthy action sequence. I wasn’t very happy with it – it wasn’t the kind of thing I normally did, and it was unsatisfactory in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. So I researched ‘action sequences’, and understood what it was I was getting wrong. I rewrote what I had three or four times, paring it right down to the minimum of what it needed. After that, it might not have been great, but it was at least competent (I hope). So, really, don’t just assume that something you’ve written is ‘good enough.’ Nothing is. A book isn’t a tv, or a pair of shoes. You don’t pay more for higher quality, and you can’t get away with something that ‘will do.’. Fight that prose to a standstill, and then, and only then, put on its hat and coat and usher it out the door.
As for sales pitch... I like to think people get something out of my stories other than the story, if that doesn’t sound counterintuitive. If writing makes people feel a certain way, then it’s great writing. Whatever you conjure, and whatever you conjure with, provides entry to a magical realm of story that we as a species are privileged to be able to experience. I spend a lot of time writing poetry, and I’d hope that whatever poetry is, the elusive, the phantasmagorical – I’d hope that filters through to my stories and their readers, and perhaps punctuates their experience with a tiny bit of magic.
MTI: Of course, readers love free samples, so let's give them a taste. Here are the first few paragraphs of your story, as featured in To Hell with Dante:
Dominic turned the page with a pale, scarred finger and sighed. He couldn’t remember one word he had just read. It was a crushingly dull story in which a witless, pipe smoking detective performed improbable acts of logic in pursuit of tedious and repetitive crimes. The detective—a pompous and clearly insecure individual—only seemed to come alive when crossing wits with a succession of facile villains, after which he felt compelled to explain his native brilliance to his long suffering factotum at excruciating length. Dominic heartily wished something about his job made him feel alive. With a flick he tossed the book into the fire. It would annoy the people upstairs, and that was enough to give him a small sense of satisfaction. Pathetic. He stretched back in his armchair, and stared at the ceiling. Despite himself, he wished the phone would ring.
The room was empty, as always, and devoid of furnishing other than the worn leather chair that Dominic sat in, the small table to his right, and the telephone that stood on it. The phone was antiquated—one of those bakelite models with a rotary dial—and he was sure he’d been given it as a joke. He hardly ever called out and when he did it went straight through to the switchboard downstairs where he would tell them what number he needed. He felt, however, that something altogether more imposing should sit at his right hand. Something better suited to his own impression of himself. Dynamic, thrusting, on the up. He grimaced. Somewhere, somehow, he’d upset someone, and this was his reward. Not for the first time, he wished he was on the Late Shift.
He scuffed his foot on the floor. He didn’t even have a carpet, just the bare boards of the old room, and vacant walls whose wallpaper had long since peeled away, leaving grey plaster and holes ridden with wood worm and rats. The Late Shift got smartphones, tablets, and—or so he heard—double glazing. He didn’t need to look behind him at the old sash window to tell it was frosted with rime and weeping trails of ice.
Thanks again, Mr. Fisher, for that great interview. Those who want to check out the rest of his story, and 20 other cynical afterlife stories, can pick up To Hell with Dante today!