An Interview with Graham Masterton

GM GRAVETYE

Before becoming a novelist author Graham Masterton worked as editor for such iconic publications as Mayfair and the British edition of Penthouse. His first novel, The Manitou was later adapted into film, starring Tony Curtis and featuring Susan Strasburg. Over the years his works in horror and fiction have delighted readers all over the world. In his latest offering, the Katie Maguire thriller, Dead Men Whistling he writes of revenge being taken against whistleblowers in An Garda Sicochana the Irish Police.

For those that might not be familiar with your background, can you tell us a little about your childhood? Did you have an active imagination as a child?

I didn’t see too much of my father when I was young because after a brief spell as a council architect after the war he rejoined the Army and was posted to Antwerp. He loved the Army because he loved shouting at people. Up until I was a teenager I thought that was the way you got things done — shouting at people – and to some extent it works, but I learned that it doesn’t make you any friends and it doesn’t win you long-term loyalty. My father had an affair with a Belgian girl in Antwerp and my parents divorced when I was seven. My mother remarried soon after. My stepfather was always very good to me, and used to take me regularly to Farnborough Airshow and other treats, but he was mentally unbalanced after his experience as a prisoner during almost all of World War Two and he had an explosive temper. In those days nobody knew much about PTSD.

I was always drawing and writing when I was young. After I was taken to see the film of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea I wrote a novel in an exercise book about a harpoonist called Hans Lee and his fight with a giant squid. I bound it in cardboard, drew a picture on the front, and sold it to my friend for a penny. That was my first-ever royalty! After that I wrote numerous books in the same way, as well as a comic called Flash which featured a spaceman called Don Kenyon. When I was about nine or ten I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, and began to write short horror stories which I would read to my school friends during morning break. One of the stories about a man who decorated his country mansion with pieces of his murdered wife won the school magazine prize. Years later I met an old school friend of mine, a City trader, who said that one of my stories had given him nightmares for years. It was about a man who had his head chopped off but continued to walk about singing Tiptoe Through The Tulips out of his severed neck. When I was about 13 I wrote a 400-page vampire novel which is sadly (or perhaps not-so-sadly) lost, but I still have another novel set in the time of the Napoleonic wars about giant crabs (which pre-dated Guy N Smith by at least a decade).

In my mid-teens I came across the American Beat writers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. When The Naked Lunch was published in England in 1965 I wrote to William Burroughs who was then living in Tangiers, and we corresponded for two or three years before he eventually came to London seeking a treatment for his morphine addiction and we became friends. He and I spent many days and evenings discussing writing techniques, and in particular how to write so that the reader felt they were ‘in’ the story, rather than just reading it, and how to become invisible as an author, which is much harder than it sounds. William called it ‘El Hombre Invisible’ – the invisible man.

What was it like having Thomas Thorne Baker, the first man to transmit news photographs by wireless and inventor of dayglo as a grandfather? What was he like as a person? What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned from him?

‘Daddy Tom’, as my sister and I used to call him, was a remarkable scientist. Not only was he the first person to send photographs by wireless (a picture from a court case in Birmingham to The Daily Mirror in Fleet Street) but he worked on early television and colour photography. I have one of his books on photographic emulsions but I can’t understand a single word of it. He was not only clever but very amusing. He told me a bedtime story about people on another planet whose heads were made of bread rolls and whenever they got hungry they cut a slice out of their head, buttered it and ate it. I remember when I was about eight years old being beckoned into his dining room and given a glass of Chateau Lafite and asked what I thought of it. I also remember a story of his about one of his friends who prided himself on his wonderful salads. When he invited my grandfather to supper he ostentatiously tossed his salad at the table, but as he was doing so his nose dripped into it, and my grandfather was then faced with the awkward situation of having to say that he wasn’t hungry after all. The most important thing I learned from him was showmanship – how to entertain people and keep them happy and amused. I think he learned that from his own father who was a theatrical impresario in Victorian London, and was involved in music-hall and comedy.

How did you make the transition from editor to author? What led you to do so?

I was editor of the UK edition of Penthouse for three years (after having been deputy editor of Mayfair for three years) and it was a dream job in many ways. Not only was I surrounded by gorgeous girls with no clothes on, I had a substantial editorial budget and I could afford some of the very best writers and artists and photographers. Kingsley Amis wrote our wine column and Humphrey Lyttleton wrote our food column and I also ran articles by Brian Aldiss and John Steinbeck Jr. But after six years of editing monthly magazines I began to grow bored, quite frankly, and after visiting New York regularly and getting to know American publishers I had already written and published my first sex how-to books, How A Woman Loves To Be Loved and How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed (still in print, incredibly). Both books sold really well and I began to realise that I could make a living out of them. Something else happened, too. At the Penthouse Christmas party 1973 I started an affair with my editorial assistant, Wiescka, although I was already married. I fell in love with Wiescka and left my wife and the stress was all too much. I quit Penthouse and Wiescka and I went to Stockholm for a while, to get as far away from the turmoil as possible. Our affair was even splashed in the Sunday People – ‘Sex Mag Boss’s Marriage Blues’.

I carried on writing sex books until my editor at Pinnacle Books told me that ‘the bottom has fallen out of the sex book market’ and that he didn’t want the new book I was working on. I told him that he still had a contract with me which he had to honour and so I sent him The Manitou, which I had written in about a week to keep myself amused in between sex books. It was inspired by Wiescka’s first pregnancy and a story about Native American spirits which I had read in The Buffalo Bill Annual 1955. Pinnacle Books liked it, and the rest is horror novel history.

What was it like to see The Manitou come to life on the screen? Where you a fan of Tony Curtis’ work prior?

I liked the film, and in particular I thought Tony Curtis was perfect as the phony fortune-teller Harry Erskine. I had obviously seen one or two Tony Curtis films before, such as Some Like It Hot, but I wasn’t a special fan of his. The only part of the film that I wasn’t so keen on was the Star Warsy climax, but then Star Wars had just come out at the time and the director Bill Girdler was deeply impressed by it. Unfortunately you couldn’t remake the film with the same director and cast because Bill Girdler died in a helicopter crash soon after The Manitou was released, and Tony Curtis and Susan Strasberg and Burgess Meredith and Michael Ansara are all brown bread.

What led you to form the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award (Nagroda Grahama Mastertona W Wiezieniu Pisane) for the inmates of all of Poland’s penal institutions to enter a short story contest? Do you think people who find themselves in such situations are often overlooked by society as a whole? Why do you think it is important to encourage creativity even in adverse circumstances?

At the end of a promotional tour of Lower Silesia in 2016 I was taken to Wolow Prison by my friend Marcin Dymalski who works for the Wroclaw Agglomeration (an association of towns around Wroclaw to promote sports and the arts and culture in general.) Wolow is a facility for serious criminals and recidivists security is very tight. I gave a talk to the inmates and once I had told them a few Irish jokes they really lightened up and became very responsive. Some of them spoke very good English and all of them had read a great deal (not much else to do in Wolow). It occurred to me while I was having lunch with the Warden Robert Kuczera afterwards that the inmates might benefit from entering a short-story contest. It would give him them a chance either to explain their situation or to let their imagination fly beyond the walls of their cells, or both. The Warden liked the idea and it was taken up by the whole Polish Prison Service. Last year (2017) we had 130 entries, which were translated for me so that I could judge the best. We have run the contest again this year and expect to get at least as many entries, if not more. What I have found especially heartening is that so far this year 11 entries have come from women inmates. Last year the second prize was won by a woman and her fictional account of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her partner rang horribly true.

Can you tell us a little about Dead Men Whistling? What can your readers expect from that particular work? What led you to create the character of Katie Maguire?

Wiescka and I lived in Cork for five years. Cork is a fascinating city with an extraordinary history. It is the second-deepest harbour in the world after Sydney and because of that it has attracted all kinds of invaders and visitors over the centuries, including Vikings and Sir Francis Drake. Cork was the last port of call of the Titanic before she set out for America. The culture and the slang in Cork are unique. People will still say ‘take a sconce at that’ when they mean ‘take a look’ although of course a sconce is a candlestick. Horror was going through something of a decline in the late 1990s and publishers were bringing out a fewer horror novels and paying less for them. It occurred to me that there was a wider audience from crime fiction, and so I thought of setting a crime novel in Cork. I created Katie Maguire because I find it a challenge to write from a woman’s point of view, and in particular a woman who has been promoted to a high rank (detective superintendent) amongst resentful and misogynistic fellow officers. The first novel I called A Terrible Beauty to quote from the Irish poet WB Yeats, but that was published only in America. After Wiescka sadly died in 2011, I was taken on by my current agents, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, and they sold A Terrible Beauty to the new publishing company Head of Zeus. They changed the title to White Bones because they thought that the original title wouldn’t resonate wth a UK readership. I was already halfway through writing a sequel, Broken Angels, and Head of Zeus commissioned me to write more. Dead Men Whistling is the ninth, and I am now working on the tenth.

Dead Men Whistling is based on the ongoing controversy in An Garda Siochana, the Irish police force, about officers who have blown the whistle on various corrupt activities, such as penalty points being surreptitiously removed from the driving licenses of favoured individuals, and the figures for roadside breath tests being grossly exaggerated. In my novel, the whistleblowers are being murdered before they can give evidence to the judge who is running an inquiry into Garda corruption.

You have also re-released The Hell Candidate that was originally penned during Reagan’s era. Can you tell us more about it also? What led you to revive it at this point in time?

I think the reasons for reviving The Hell Candidate in the time of Trump are fairly obvious. I wrote The Hell Candidate after making friends in California with Ronald Reagan’s older brother Neil Reagan. He filled me in on a lot of the background of how his brother was running for President, and since I was fully into writing horror novels at the time, I thought it would be entertaining to imagine that a candidate could win if he were possessed by the Devil.

You have also written poetry. What do you enjoy most about poetry? Do you do much of that these days?

I have always believed that writing poetry is a great exercise for novelists. It helps you to understand rhythm, clarity and simplicity of language, and how to communicate emotion in the fewest number of words. I still write it from time to time when the mood takes me. I wrote several poems when Wiescka died, which helped me to come to terms with my own feelings.

M&B

Graham Masterton & William S. Burroughs

What was it like to work with William S. Burroughs on Rules of Duel back in the 70s?

Hilarious, most of the time. Although William dressed like a bank manager and spoke with a gravelly Mid-Western drawl, he was very droll and sarcastic. I used to go round to his top-floor flat just off Jermyn Street or else we would go out to dinner somewhere and talk about literary ideas and politics non-stop. We got thrown out of a Lebanese restaurant in Covent Garden once because William got drunk and starting shouting out ‘Bomb the Ay-rabs!’ Rules of Duel was written in what he called ’intersection writing’ – that is, writing a sentence and then cutting it up and mixing it with other sentences so that it took on a new and different meaning. The only problem is that this makes Rules of Duel untranslatable into any other language.

What do you personally remember most about the Beat Generation?

What was most important for me about the Beat Generation was that they were unafraid to speak their minds about anything, and unafraid to express their emotions. Apart from William and Brion Gysin and Alexander Trocchi I didn’t meet too many of them personally, although Allen Ginsberg dropped in to William’s flat one evening when he was visiting London. He said that he was ‘bushed’ after flying from New York and he lay down on the floor to rest. He spread his greasy black locks all over my pale suede Italian shoes (I was an obsessive Mod at the time) and for that I have never forgiven him, regardless of his poetry.

What are some of your most fond memories over the course of your life so far?

Wiescka and I were together for 37 years and all of those years with her were bliss. Being an author and working at home, we could be together 24 hours a day. Of course we argued but arguments are a healthy part of marriage and treating each other equally. I can remember us sitting together in a restaurant in San Francisco watching the sunset. We both ordered lobster but we forgot how huge the lobsters are in America. I can remember her looking up to the ceiling and putting her hands together and praying, ‘Dear Lord, when I look down at my plate again, can there please be no more lobster on it?’

What projects are you currently working on?

I am writing the tenth Katie Maguire novel. This one is about organized begging which is a scourge in many cities in Ireland and the UK at the moment. It is also about puppy farming, which is a serious scandal that Irish politicians with one notable exception are choosing to ignore. I am also promoting my new horror novel Ghost Virus which comes out as an ebook in May and as a hardback in October. I have more ideas but they haven’t gelled yet.

What do you think is key to a life well lived?

Kindness. Listening to other people and understanding their problems and their ambitions. Smiling at old people to show them that they are not invisible.

What are your personal feelings on life and death and what may come after? How do you hope to be remembered when your time comes?

I am not religious. I believe that when you die, it’s just like going to sleep. Blackness. The end. I think that promises of heaven or threats of hell are absurd. Because of that, I have no particular hopes about how I might be remembered, because I won’t be there to enjoy it. It’s quite satisfying, though, to think that I will have left behind a considerable amount of published work which can be read after I’m gone.

Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?

Only the advice I gave to our three sons: don’t turn on the tap full blast when there is an upturned teaspoon in the sink.

 

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