This interview was conducted several years back and is one of my personal favorites. It was truly soothing to hear Graham speak of his Grandmother so fondly. Upon hearing of his passing today, I was left if with a lump in my throat and the desire to share with you all the words found within…
Graham Joyce has won several awards for his speculative fiction novels and short stories. His works have been rather hard to put into a genre. He has covered horror, fantasy, and science fiction in a manner that is hard to match, often with strong female characters. He also offers a glimpse at the supernatural and mystical elements in delightful fashion, creating worlds that offer a much needed source of escapism for readers everywhere. Joyce can also be found teaching creative writing at Notthingham Trent University.
What was it like growing up in a small town? Do you find your experiences there encouraged you to dream more than you might have otherwise? Do you have a memory from that time that you hold particularly dear?
The place I grew up is Keresley, a rather unlovely mining village on the western side of Coventry. It’s a pretty gritty experience growing up in a place like that but a very warm one where you knew everyone and they knew you. Although the village had little to offer, it was on the edge of some wonderful countryside which I spent most of my childhood exploring. This later became the setting for some of my novels and short stories most notably the Tooth Fairy, Black Dust and the Overself. Probably my favorite memories are of the many days I spent both on my own or with friends roaming the countryside and exploring the woods near my house. I later discovered that these woods are one of the few remaining parts of the forest of Arden. There is a very special atmosphere in a wood and perhaps this time did influence my creativity as I spent a lot of time lost in my own thoughts and daydreams.
I read that your literary approach was influenced by your own family. And that your Grandmother often received messages in dreams and other such things. What was she like? Do you feel lucky to have grown up around such intuitive people? Did she encourage you to embrace things unseen?
My grandmother was an amazing character who was one of the strongest characters I have ever come across. She was brought up in Kidderminster and by the age of 12 she was working in the carpet factories. Amazingly she managed to survive anthrax which she contracted while working with raw wool, the factory owners paid her to keep quiet about the illness because the factory would have had to have been closed. She was married by the age of 20 and she went on to have 7 children (6 of them girls, all of whom survived and went on to have children of their own. When she died aged 92 we calculated that she was responsible for over 40 people, and that was in 1981!
I’ve no idea about how many there are now! She often had inspirational messages in the form of dreams and I remember when I was growing up that this was accepted in the family as a simple fact of life. I remember she would tell me how to deal with ghosts and have a clear memory of playing under her kitchen table with a toy car. I looked up and she was staring at me oddly. She said “Graham, if you ever get troubled by a ghost, all you have to do is cuss them out. They don’t like it if you use bad language on them.” She was to become the model for Martha in The Facts of Life and just like the character in the book she regularly experienced premonitions which came to her while she was asleep. All her family took these messages seriously but in a very matter of fact kind of way. They were as much a part of life as corned beef sandwiches and cups of tea. I think that she has been a huge influence in my life and in my writing and I do feel very lucky to have known her.
You often write strong female characters. Did she and the others in your family have a major role in your doing that? What do you think women need to know in order to truly be strong females?
It’s true that I have been surrounded by strong women. As I grew up I spent a lot of my time with my grandmother and also with my five aunts all of whom were very strong-willed and opinionated! Characteristics of all of them appear in the sisters in The Facts of Life. I think that they were strong women because they had to be. They grew up in difficult times, surviving the blitz in Coventry, coping with poverty, childbirth and ill health. There was a very strong ethos in that family that in tough times you just keep going and eventually things will get better and I think on the whole it worked.
What was the best advice your grandmother ever gave you?
I think it has to be the advice about getting rid of ghosts although I’ve never had to use it yet!
Do you think you would be as well equipped to write on the subjects that you do without her influence?
No, she definitely influenced my thoughts about the paranormal and it was her “matter-of-fact”, practical attitude towards it that has formed my views. It has made me want to write novels where the supernatural is present but it doesn’t represent a dangerous enemy. There was another thing that my grandmother used to say to me. “It’s not the dead ones you have to worry about it’s the live ones.” I do subscribe to the notion of another reality but I think living people are the danger, not the dead ones.
What first led you to try your hand at writing?
Even as a schoolboy I wanted to write and my first efforts were detailed reports of Coventry City FC football games. Later I found inspiration from the wonderful rock lyrics on the sleeves of album covers. I think I always would have written even if I hadn’t become a published writer.
What was it like to work as a youth officer for the National Association of Youth Clubs?
A lot of fun. Although I had a teaching qualification I’d had no training in youth work and I was largely governed by what Hemingway said: “The best thing you can give a teenager is a bullshit detector.” I was always saying that you can talk about sex and drugs and rock and roll to young people because they’re immediately interested in those things. In those three issues there are as many moral questions to be addressed as you can find anywhere in the world. So that was my agenda: to find a way through the moral maze. I don’t know if I helped the kids, but I’m clearly still stuck in the maze myself, trying to write myself out.
Do prefer to write novels or short stories?
I love writing short stories but novels are the way I make my living and so are my priority. On the whole I think I am best suited to writing novels because they give me the space to develop themes and ideas and to run with ideas which isn’t always possible in the confines of a short story structure.
Do you enjoy offering readers some much needed escapism in times such as these?
Yes I think we all need a little escapism.
Do you think the publishing world has changed much since you first started working in it?
The mid-list has contracted massively while the publication of celeb books has expanded. These celeb books are really only magazine journalism, but in book covers. Problem is these command huge advances which previously went into supporting new writers and mid-list writers who were not best sellers but who probably had a loyal audience. Sadly some authors who I’ve loved reading for years aren’t getting publishing contracts any longer. The plus side of this is that it has given a break to small and independent presses and there is a lively non-corporate alt fiction vibe to these presses and the decisions they make, which is hugely encouraging. As well as all this there is the growth of e-books and all the implications that will have for the publishing industry.
What is it like to teach at Nottingham Trent University? Do you enjoy nourishing other creative minds?
Yes, I’ve met some wonderful people on the course who have produced some great writing. Sometimes I think that the students are nourishing me. Teaching on the course keeps me fresh and makes me constantly review the craft of writing. The fact that several of the students have gone on to have their work published has been a real source of pleasure for me.
Are there any little known facts about yourself you could share with our readers?
I’m goalkeeper for the England Writers football team and I practice martial arts and kickboxing. These things I do very badly.
Is there any one subject you’ve yet to cover you’d most like to?
Not one but five hundred, I have more ideas than I have time to write. Life’s too short and it’s picking the right ones that’s the problem.
Who do you consider to be some of the best authors of our time?
Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Kazantzakis, George Orwell, William Faulkner, Angela Carter, Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson. I like narrative and insight.
What are you working on at this time?
I’m working on a novel with a working title of Some Kind Of Fairy Tale. It begins with an elderly couple sitting down to Christmas dinner when the doorbell rings. When they answer the door it is their daughter who has been missing for 20 years; she hasn’t aged a day.
If you could choose your last words what would they be? How do you hope to be remembered when your time comes?
My last words would be: Life it was too short. I’d like to be remembered as a good dad.