Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Erm... what am I doing here?
I mean, just because I have a series involving a man and a woman who are so insecure that it took them four novels to get to the bedroom doesn’t mean I write ROMANCE.
And definitely not FANTASY. Suave vampires in designer T-shirts, elves and damsels on epic quests - forget it!
Also, while there might be hauntings, hints of dark ritual and the unexplained... that doesn’t make me a HORROR writer.
Oh... and being set in English villages with ancient churches and black and white timber-framed houses doesn’t mean these books are COZY.
You got all that? If not, please try... because this is the problem I’ve been having for over ten years. I have to keep explaining what I DON’T do. All part of the headache of developing an original concept at a time when anything different in popular fiction is regarded with extreme suspicion.
There’s been a change in publishing. It’s no longer run by vague, willowy men and women in half-glasses. Now it’s hard-nosed power-dressers who know how to market.
What they want is The new Dan Brown. Or a book on which they can splatter: As good as Patricia Cornwell or your money back.
What they don’t want is something which book critics start to describe as ‘a new genre.’
A new genre? Oh no! Which shelf do we put that on?
OK, let’s go back.
In the 1980s, the big thing was horror. Stephen King was God. I enjoyed his stuff as much as anyone, but I wanted to do something slightly different, more plausible. What the early King novels did magnificently was to take established scary items, like vampires, and transplant them to contemporary America. Put something old and weird into a place with no history of it.
In which case, I was thinking, why aren’t we in Britain using our rich legacy of indigenous folklore - centuries of it just lying there unused?
At the time, I was working as a radio and TV reporter in central Wales and discovering recent - even contemporary - accounts of some very weird phenomena, like phantom funerals and corpse candles - little moving lights said to herald death. I put them all into a novel called Candlenight, which also dealt with current social and political isues in Wales.
It got picked up by Duckworth a small London literary publisher and was well-reviewed in most of the national papers. Which meant the paperback rights got sold to Pan Books, the paperback arm of a big publisher, Macmillan.
Eyes gleaming with pound and dollar signs, Macmillan said, This guy is Britain’s Stephen King. Let’s go for it... So they replaced Duckworth’s restrained, atmospheric cover with something out of a horror comic which makes me wince to this day.
The next novel was Crybbe, which again used entirely local folklore, but had fewer deaths. Macmillan wanted to splash THE NEW MASTER OF HORROR across the front. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘it’s spooky, but there are no giant rats and nobody gets disembowelled. It’s not strictly horror, is it?’
Besides, it was now 1991, and horror had peaked. A dearth of new ideas meant that many horror writers were drifting into fantasy to save their careers, and I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to write about phenomena I could believe in. Macmillan finally compromised with ‘the masterpiece of the supernatural’ , and the novel was published in the US as Curfew, where it sold very well, with Puttnam describing it as ‘quiet horror.’
I did a couple more which Macmillan continued - despite my pleas - to publish with lurid covers. We were now in the mid-90s and, in Britain, the whole bottom had dropped out of horror market. This didn’t worry me a lot; in fact I saw it as an opportunity to write what I actually wanted to write, dealing with the paranormal in an entirely realistic way.
I mean, I believe these thing happen. As a journalist, I’d met too many people with convincing stories. But I knew if I was going to be able to handle the numinous with any degree of authenticity, I’d have to aim the novels at the Crime and Mystery market.
The next one, The Wine of Angels, was billed as a ghost story but had all the elements of a crime novel. It was set in a village on the border of England and Wales and its leading character was the vicar - a woman. The story made this essential, and, as woman priests had only recently been permitted by the Church of England, it seemed an interesting idea.
The woman priest was called Merrily Watkins, a single parent with a teenage daughter, Jane, who despised the Church and was drawn towards witchcraft and paganism. By the time the book was finished, I really liked Merrily and Jane and wanted to bring them back. But how - realistically - could a parish priest become involved in murder and weird stuff twice?
The answer came in a moment of enlightenment I can recall vividly to this day. I would make her an exorcist.
Now, the big precedent for exorcism in fiction was William Peter Blatty’s excellent novel The Exorcist. But how realistic was it? It was certainly based on a true story, but I found that exorcists in real life dealt with less spectacular events than teenage girls projectile-vomiting green bile while spinning their heads through 360 degrees. Hauntings, mainly. Troubled people. Obsession. Paranoia. And sometimes cases on the fringes of crime - particularly murder.
But the point was - and is - that exorcists exist. In Britain, in the Church of England, they operate under the title Deliverance minister or consultant. Ever diocese has at least one, and it’s a complex job, with all kinds of spiritual and political hazards - especially for a woman.
I was inspired. Still am. I’ve now written ten novels about Merrily and her troubled, low-key musician friend Lol Robinson. Never run out of ideas because I still have the concept to myself - the paranormal, realistically evoked, inside the crime novel. The ‘spiritual procedural genre’ as one critic called it. I think it has mystery and atmosphere and a slightly dangerous air. Crime... with an element of something else.
And it’s still a genre of one.
Which brings us back to the central problem: which shelf do you put these novels on? The marketing guys at Macmillan never got it. Failed to prevent the booksellers stacking the Merrily Watkins series under horror which, alphabetically, put me next to Anne Rice. A good writer, but...
‘No!’ I’m screaming. ‘Crime! Put me in crime!’
It took years and a change of publisher to get where I wanted to be. Now, at last, most bookstores have me in crime... but the problems haven’t quite gone away, especially in the US, where there seems to be a genre known as ‘clerical crime’, in which cozy murders are solved by cozy priests. Often in pictureque communities.
Yeah, right. Serial killers, ritual murder, Church corruption, psychopathy, mental illness, teenage suicide... cozy as hell.
The scenery’s definitely picturesque, though. And Merrily and Lol... well, let’s call it alternative romance.
Phil Rickman is the author of the Merrily Watkins thriller series and nine other novels, (including two for children under the name Thom Madley.)
He was born in Lancashire, but has spent most of his adult life in Wales and the Border country, where he won a couple of awards for his work as a BBC radio and TV news reporter.
First novel, Candlenight (1991) was discovered by the novelist and fiction-editor Alice Thomas Ellis and was followed by four other stand-alone novels before the Merrily Watkins series began with The Wine of Angels.
Phil lives near Hay-on-Wye with his wife, Carol - they met as journalists on the same paper - and a bunch of animals. He still writes and presents radio features including the book programme PHIL THE SHELF on BBC Radio Wales.
His work has been described as...
‘an excellent writer... terrific on atmosphere.’ Marcel Berlins, THE TIMES.
'the best English writer in the crime genre today.' Prof. Bernard Knight, TANGLED WEB
‘...if this makes the books sound cosy, they are a long way from that... A haunting quality beyond crime fiction... rich in atmosphere and practically unique...’ Russell James, Great British Fictional Detectives (2009)
‘Tough-minded, atmospheric mystery... with particularly sharp scene-setting.’ Barry Forshaw, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction