Andrew David Barker was born in Derby, England in 1975. He is a writer and filmmaker. He is the author of The Electric and the novella Dead Leaves. As a filmmaker, he wrote and directed the cult, post-apocalyptic indie feature, A Reckoning, in 2011, and has recently made the short films, Two Old Boys and Shining Tor. He lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughter, trying to be a grown up. His website is: http://www.andrewdavidbarker.com Twitter: @ADBarker
Interviewed by Lee Wright
LW: As a novelist and filmmaker, who has influenced you the most?
ADB: Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, probably. They, above all others, were possibly the first creators I knew of that made me want to write and to make films. The filmmaking thing came first as well. I was born in 1975 – the summer Jaws came out – and so I am very much of the Spielberg and Lucas generation. I’m part of the last wave of Gen-Xers; I grew up with TV and movies that gave me a sense of wonder and then came of age in the '90s when we thought life was one big party – the long hangover began around 2001.
I’m someone who is always hungry for new inspiration. Once I find out about a new author, filmmaker, songwriter, whatever, I tend to want to find out everything about that person, soak up everything they’ve done, and once I’m sated I move onto the next artist. There are mainstay artists though, people I always come back to, but really I’m always looking for something new. I’m on a big Magnus Mills kick at the moment, who I think is fast becoming my favourite English writer. I understand his world and his characters, and he’s very funny.
I think influences are important. I’ve written a lot about fandom – about how being inspired by a film/book/band whatever can propel you to create your own art. Without those first sparks of excitement I felt watching, say, Close Encounters or reading The Stand, I wouldn’t be doing this stuff.
LW: What’s your definition of horror?
ADB: That’s a tough question, but I guess it’s something that horrifies, simple as that. I tend to be drawn more to tales of the supernatural, the uncanny. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent now, but if it exists in a realm that is too real for me, I can’t do it nowadays. It has to be detached from my everyday life. So, humans killing other humans doesn’t do much for me. That said, I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the greatest horror film ever made. I think it’s a masterpiece. An incredible piece of filmmaking that works on so many levels. It’s very much like a Grimm Fairy Tale in many ways. It’s not a film I can watch very often, but I don’t need to because it’s never left me.
I had a love of horror films from a very early age. The first horrors I saw were the old Universal pictures, which are just beautiful to look at. Then I saw Salem’s Lot at a ridiculously young age. Yes, Tobe Hooper again. I’m sure it’s very dated now, but the memory I have of those kids scratching at the bedroom windows frightened me very badly. Dawn of the Dead was another seminal film. I was probably about nine when I first watched that and as you can imagine at that age, it had a profound effect. In many ways actually, as that was one of the first films that got me interested in filmmaking.
I think for horror to really work it has to tap into universal fears. We all understand a fear of what lies beneath the ocean while we swim, which is why Jaws will always work. We all understand nightmares and so we have Freddy Krueger. We all understand the fear of someone wanting to murder us – Psycho, Halloween and so on.
There is the fear of something external – the monster outside – or internal – the monster inside. That is pretty much it. The best books and movies tap into those areas and to really be scary they need to peel back the many layers of our defences and strip them away one by one.
LW: Your novel, Dead Leaves (about the video nasty area and a group of teenagers), has just been republished by Black Shuck Books after first being published in 2015 by Boo Books. Can you tell us about your experiences of having to find a new publisher?
ADB: The world of the small press is pretty tough. No one makes any money. These publishers – and writers – do it for the sheer love of books. I think it is a pure thing. Boo Books gave me my start. They published my first novel, The Electric, in 2014, and Dead Leaves in 2015. I thought I was on a roll. Then soon after Leaves was published, Alex Davis of Boo Books had to close its doors. There is pure love, then there’s making something that is tenable. This stuff is hard to do.
Anyway, I’m always going to be grateful for Alex giving me a start. After Dead Leaves, though, I kind of stalled with my writing. It wasn’t a writer’s block, because I was still writing, I just didn’t finish anything. I started and abandoned two novels. But also, in that time I became a parent, which, as wonderful as that has been – and it is the greatest joy in my life – it will seriously cut into your writing time. So before I knew it three years had passed since I’d published anything. Aside from a short story called "Bank Holiday All-Dayer" anyway.
As for Black Shuck Books. I went along to Edge Lit in Derby, as I often do, which is a great writing festival, and saw Steve Shaw, who runs Black Shuck. I’d met him a few years before and got on well with him. He’d read Dead Leaves when it first came out and had told me he really liked it. Anyway, I happened to mention that I was on the lookout for a new publisher and he immediately said that he’d be interested in reissuing Leaves. That was in June of this year and it came out in September, so it happened very fast. I hadn’t sent out Dead Leaves or The Electric to any other publishers. I really should though as I’d really like to get a new publisher for The Electric. Anyway, I hope I can do more stuff with Black Shuck Books.
LW: Your novels and short stories tend to depict the “coming-of-age genre.” Do you fear growing up?
ADB: Ha, yes! I’m 43, but still feel like a kid most of the time. Growing up is boring. Grown ups are boring!
I don’t know, I like the genre. There’s something about that time of firsts that has always appealed to me. It’s an exciting time, and a universal one. We all go through it and it’s always life-shaping. Who you are going to be, what you are going to love, hate, everything is formed in those early years. Plus there is a magic to childhood that we can forget when we grow up. But I never want to forget it, and writing can bring it back in very vivid ways.
That said, it is probably time to move on. My next projects have older protagonists. I’ll more-than-likely return to writing about kids again at some point though.
LW: Have you ever drawn on any autobiographical content for your fiction?
ADB: Always. You’ve got to have skin in the game. All my work is drawn from my life. Dead Leaves and the short story "Bank Holiday All-Dayer" especially. That said, I don’t so much as write what I know, more write what I feel. I’m a very instinctive writer. For novels I don’t plan, don’t outline, although I do for screenplays. But for novels I like to see where the characters will lead me and through that very process, memories, feelings, moments I’ve had with people from my life always filter in.
Like many writers, I spent a good deal of time in my early writing trying to write like authors I admired, but it never worked. You do have to find your own path, dig deep within yourself. It will give your work the honesty that will eventually become your identity. And if that identity can then connect with readers, then you’re well away.
LW: As well as being traditionally published, you have also self-published a couple of short stories as e-books. What advice would you give for writers thinking of going down this route?
ADB: Do it.
Don’t wait for anybody’s permission to do any of this stuff. Get your work out into the world any way you can and don’t apologise for it. There are snobs out there about self-publishing – a lot of them established writers, it seems – that feel it’s a cheat. But a lot of doors are closed in the so-called established world. You’ve got to forge your own path.
What I find curious is that being independent is celebrated in other areas. If you make an independent film, raise the money yourself, or, like Kevin Smith, pay for your first film yourself, it’s celebrated. It’s also inspiring. How many filmmakers were born through watching Clerks, or any number of indie films?
If you’re a musician and you bypass the record industry and put your music out yourself, it can be celebrated. But books, no. Yet, when an Andy Weir breaks through or someone like that, a lot is made of the unsung talent out there. And there is a lot of talent out there. There’s also a lot of crap, of course. But there’s a lot of that being put out by established channels as well.
But anyway … the walls are being torn down to a certain extent. All media is shifting. The old paradigms are crumbling. Get your stuff out there and be the best you can be. By that I mean, treat it as if you are being professionally published. Get an editor, a book cover designer; don’t just throw it out there. Think about the marketing, reviewers you might be able to tap, quotes you might be able to get. Everything a big publisher would do, apply it to your book. You won’t be able to get in Waterstone's or get reviewed by The Guardian. You might, but you probably won’t, but in everything else give it the absolute best shot you can.
LW: One of your e-books, The Fin, is a short story, based on a scene in a film (Jaws), that was originally based on a novel by Peter Benchley. What were your thoughts when working on that story?
ADB: Everyone who knows me knows that I’m fairly obsessed with Jaws. Spielberg’s film anyway, I don’t think Benchley’s novel is as strong. The Fin was just a bit of fun to be honest, nothing more than that. It’s fan fiction and I was certainly writing outside of my identity, which I was speaking of earlier. Although it is still about kids I suppose. I haven’t read it in a long time and it’s probably pretty clumsy, but it was fun to write and really fun to write in that world. It’s set in the world of Spielberg’s film, not really Benchley’s novel. I did think recently about taking the story down, but then decided against it. That was where I was as a writer at that point in my life. It’s a document of my abilities at that time. Every book and story is. Every film is. So that’s fine with me. Plus, I still think it’s a fun little story, and it’s very short.
LW: Though your interests lie in the horror genre, you are yet to write a straight-forward horror novel. Do you believe that “writing scary” is a hard thing to do?
ADB: Really hard. It’s like comedy, which is also very difficult. In fact I think comedy and horror are very similar. They both work in the build-up and pay off. Plus, what scares people and what makes people laugh are very subjective, which is why I said earlier the best ones are the ones that speak to a universal truth.
As for my writing, I haven’t written a horror novel, although I’ve written about horror. I have, however, started work on a horror novel – a '70s set, occult horror that I hope to finish one day, and I’ve just completed a short collection of ghost stories which I hope to be published next year. But really I’m interested in all kinds of stories.
Writers are often boxed into genres, but I admire writers who break that and write across genres. I like Michael Chabon for that. He’s seen as literary, whatever that means, but very much plays around in genre, all different kinds of genre. Paul Auster is the same. I think he’s an incredible writer. Joyce Carol Oates is the same. Stephen King, who is classed as a horror writer, has written in every kind of genre there is. In fact, I think he’s only written a handful of pure, balls-to-the-wall horror novels, the rest is across the board.
One of the main projects I’m working on seems to be a love story, very much in a kind of Nick Hornby or David Nicholls mould. It might be a detriment to my career that I’m jumping from one thing to another – that I’m not doing any one type of novel – but I can only write what I can write, and I have ideas in all kinds of genres and areas. What I try to bring to all these things though is a great sense of me, my identity. I hope that will tie them all together.
It’s interesting to me that film directors can work in all kinds of genres and stories, and yet writers don’t have that same amount of freedom. I don’t know why that is.
LW: What was the last novel that scared you?
ADB: I haven’t read many horror novels in recent years, although I did read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist last year and thought it was quite brilliant. There was some very unnerving stuff in that one. I’m going through a bit of a Blatty stage at the moment.
I did recently read James Herbert’s The Rats that I had great fun with, but it didn’t scare me. It takes a lot to scare me, in fiction anyway. The real world scares me greatly.
I love a good ghost story. Michelle Paver’s "Dark Matter" was the last really good one I read. Actually, there’s a section in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore that really upset me. The torture and killing of cats. That was horrible. He’s an incredible writer who defies any box a publisher would try to put him in. That’s an inspiration to me.
LW: Do you ever get disheartened with writing?
ADB: Yes. There’s what I call the Demon Doubt. He’s an arsehole. You can be happily writing away, thrilled with what you’re creating, but you come back to it the next day and it can feel and seem completely different. It can feel like what you achieved yesterday in unbridled joy is now utter crap. That’s the Demon Doubt taking hold.
I’ve learned to ignore him, but it is sometimes hard. Once he’s got his teeth into you, entire projects can die. Believe me, I know.
The trick is to trick him. Leave the work for a few days, weeks even. Make him think you’ve forgotten it and then go back to the work and more often than not you’ll think, “Hey, this is pretty good” and you’re back in the game.
Truth is though, I think it’s healthy for a writer to have doubts and fears. If I were blindly confident and thinking everything I’ve written is amazing, then I’d be really worried. That path leads to mediocre, or even crap work.
There have been times when I couldn’t write, or just had no interest in it, but they’ve been rare. Even on bad days when the Demon Doubt is playing his merry little games with my head I’m still compelled to do the work. And I think that is the key to actually making it as a writer. Now, I haven’t made it in the West’s view of success. I haven’t made big money from my writing and I still have to have a day job, but I’ve made it in the sense that I’ve kept on going and will continue to keep on going. I need to write. It’s who I am and I think I’m a better person when I do write. That’s what my wife says anyway.
So you have to push on through those times when it all feels pointless and you think you’ve got nothing to say. Dig deep, push through and you’ll have a piece of work that you’ll be proud of. That’s the key. Ignore the Demon Doubt and finish it.
About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.