Graham Masterton has long been considered a master wordsmith. He went from being the original editor of Mayfair and the British version of Penthouse, to writing self help sex education books. His first novel The Manitou went on to be filmed starring Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Burgess Meredith, and Michael Ansara. Long considered on of the best authors in his field Masterton was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers’ Association in 2019.
How did you land your first professional writing job? What did it feel like to be doing something you love?
When I reached sixth-form level at school, my mother’s second husband changed jobs and we had to move to Crawley New Town (as it then was) in Sussex. I had been attending Whitgift, an all-boys’ public school in Croydon, but now the hourly commute to school every morning was too tiring. I was found a place in the sixth form at Ifield Grammar School (as it then was) only five minutes from where we now lived. The most dramatic difference about the grammar school was that it was co-ed, and I found myself in a small A-level English class with four of the prettiest girls you have ever seen. I totally forgot about Shakespeare and Milton and Sheridan and spent all my time chatting up Jane and Jill and Valerie and Charmienne.
After only two terms the headmaster told me that I was wasting my time there and I was asked to leave. That was probably the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I got a job at Gerrard’s the Greengrocers and soon became skilled at twisting paper bags full of potatoes and Brussels sprouts (I can still do it.) Although I was only 17 I was asked if I would like to take over the shop as manager. That same day, though, the local youth employment officer got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in a vacancy that the local paper the Crawley Observer was offering for a trainee reporter. I jumped at the chance. I had been writing stories ever since I was seven or eight years old…stories based on Jules Verne adventures and Edgar Allan Poe horror tales. When I was about 15 or 16 I had discovered the Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs and I was really impressed by how outspoken they were, and unafraid to discuss any topic, political or sexual. At the same time, though, their writing was so rhythmical and so direct that you felt you were actually living their poems and their stories rather than reading something on a page.
I started to emulate their writing and also wrote to William Burroughs (he was living in Tangier at the time.) We corresponded regularly and eventually became friends.
I loved being a reporter. In those days the editors and the senior reporters were all retired Fleet Street men from national newspapers, and they really knew how to identify a news story and how to write it so that it would immediately catch and hold their readers’ attention. They taught me how to be concise and clear and how to use the simplest language. Most of all they taught me how to ask people the most intimate questions, and how to listen to the answers. On my very first day I was sent to interview a woman about her husband winning a cycling trophy (not exactly front-page news!). I got all the details but as I was about to leave she said, ‘He beats me.’ I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, and for the next hour she gave me all the details of his physical and mental abuse. Of course I couldn’t put that in the paper, but for me it was a Damascene moment. I realized that if you are unafraid to ask direct questions, and listen to the answers sympathetically, even total strangers will tell you almost everything about their lives.
The Observer not only taught me writing discipline, the editor allowed me to be creative. I was given my own by-lined page to write about pop music and youth stories, and also to write a humorous column called Private Ear.
What do you think it takes to create an interesting story?
There are interesting stories everywhere you look. That was another thing that my four years of training as a reporter taught me. One key to creating interesting stories is to be completely original. My first horror novel The Manitou was based on Native American mythology which only Algernon Blackwood had touched on in his terrific story about the Wendigo. It sold half a million copies in six months. I have written about vampires a couple of times. Descendant was a vampire novel but nobody in a cloak bit anybody’s neck…it was all based on the original legends about the strigoi in Romania. I have never written about werewolves or zombies. There are so many fascinating demons and ghosts and terrifying spirits in the mythology of other cultures that you could never run out of fascinating ideas. Another key is to contrast or even clash two very different ideas against each other – maybe a real-life story based on a current news event with a fictional drama. That was the basis of some of the political thrillers I wrote and also the 11 crime novels I wrote about Det. Supt Katie Maguire. There were so many riveting news stories in the Irish Examiner that I never ran out of ideas.
Who were some of your favorite authors from early on? What was it about their work that spoke to you most?
I loved Jules Verne when I was young, especially the giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. I wrote several books of my own based on a harpooner called Hans Lee, bound them in cardboard and sold them to my friends for a penny (my first royalties!). I graduated them to Edgar Allen Poe and loved the gothic originality of his stories. Then went on to hard-bitten but very professional American authors like Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny) and Nelson Algren (The Man With The Golden Arm). I loved their believability and the way they were able to construct their plots so that the readers’ point of view could be turned on its head. After those writers, I went on to discover the Beats.
What was it like when you discovered the Beats? What do you think it is about that particular culture that draws people in most?
You have to remember that when the Beats started writing, society both in the United States and Britain was still very conformist. Nobody had used a rude word on television or the radio. Homosexuality was illegal. There were plenty of restaurants where they wouldn’t let a man in unless he was wearing a tie and I was refused entry to Annabel’s night club in London because I was wearing jeans (!). Suddenly the Beats were saying things that couldn’t be said, expressing both love and defiance, and expressing it in highly unusual freestyle poetry and audacious stories. We were the children who had been brought up in the rigid and austere 1950s by parents who had been exhausted by war and the Beats wrote about everything we wanted: bright clothes, exciting music, sex and freedom to say what we felt, without constriction.
How did being an editor for Mayfair come about?
After four years on the Observer I was keen to work for a national newspaper. I went to meet my uncle Bill who was property editor of the Evening Standard in Fleet Street. I bought him a pint of beer and asked him if he could help to get me a job. He said I should first go and get a few years’ training on a Northern newspaper such as the Manchester Guardian. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go up North. I was a Mod and into Kings Road fashions and Soho blues clubs. Next I was given an interview by the editor of The Daily Telegraph. He suggested I should go up North and get a few years’ training on the Wolverhampton Evening News. I was quite depressed and didn’t know what to do next, but my good friend Katherine O’Sullivan who was a reporter on the rival newspaper in Crawley told me she had seen a man on the London Underground reading a new magazine called Mayfair that looked a bit like Playboy. I bought a copy and immediately wrote a letter to them saying how much they needed a brilliant writer like me. The publisher Brian Fisk gave me an interview and said he had never read such an arrogant job application in his life. He took me to lunch at the RAC Club in Pall Mall and offered me the job of deputy editor. That wasn’t as grand as it sounds because all the photography and design and most of the articles in Mayfair were farmed out to freelances and the staff consisted only of Brian Fisk, the editor David Campbell, the secretary Jill, me, and Brian’s Alsatian. From day one, I wrote almost everything, including sexy humorous articles, cartoon captions, and even the readers’ letters when we didn’t have enough.
You have written countless sex instruction books as well. What is the most challenging thing one faces in writing instruction books of any variety?
It was writing for Mayfair that led to the sex instruction books. We were trying to find a regular monthly feature that would ensure that our readers would always be hungry for, like the letters in Penthouse. I thought up Quest, which was a question-and-answer sex survey, interviewing young women about their sex lives. I wrote all of it myself, but it wasn’t completely fiction, because I based it closely on intimate talks that I had had with the girls who appeared in the centre spread of the magazine every month – using the same interview techniques that I had learned from being a reporter. These features proved to be so popular that they greatly increased the circulation of Mayfair and eventually led to a publisher Neville Spearman asking me to write a book in the same q-and-a style. Out of that came Your Erotic Fantasies and Girls Who Said Yes, under the pseudonym Edward Thorne. Three years later, when I left Mayfair and took over as editor of Penthouse, I started writing sex instruction books under my own name. The first — How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed – was a huge seller and is still on sale today. The most challenging thing is the language you use, especially with sex books. I wrote 29 of them altogether, and one of the main reasons they sold so well was because they discussed sex in non-medical terms that people could understand and relate to, but at the same time I didn’t use obscenities. So many instruction books talk down to their readers, too. You need to write as if you’re a friend who’s listening to their problems sympathetically, nodding, and then making a few helpful suggestions.
As someone who has worked as an editor as well as an author do you enjoy one more than the other?
I enjoyed both equally. I loved every aspect of running a magazine. Not only did I devise the contents of each issue, I was able to meet and make friends with some terrific authors that I commissioned to write articles. Stirling Moss used to write motoring articles for me. Jan Cremer wrote brilliant travel features. Brian Aldiss contributed sci-fi stories. Humphrey Lyttleton was my food critic. John Steinbeck Jr. wrote some great pieces, too. And so on. I also negotiated all the print contracts and even bought the paper. And I can’t say that having all those stunning girls around with no clothes on was the most dispiriting part of the job. Being an author obviously means that you have to spend most of the day on your own, but I still like to involve myself in other activities, like attending book signings in other countries like Poland, France, Greece and the Czech Republic. I have also been co-authoring short horror stories with a sparkling new writing talent, Dawn G. Harris – the first time that I have found an author whose ideas and writing styles completely click with mine. We have published two of those stories already in the United States, in Russia, in Greece, in Bulgaria and in Poland and we aim to put out a collection of them in a book.
How do you think the literary world has changed most since you began delving into it?
Publishing has changed enormously. When I first started writing horror novels and thrillers and historical dramas, I was writing for gentlemanly publishers like Hamish Hamilton and Penguin and WH Allen and St Martins Press and Simon & Schuster. Novels were commissioned over leisurely lunches in fine restaurants and advances were usually very generous. But then publishers began to be taken over by larger international companies and became conglomerates. The old guard retired or died. I am extremely lucky today to be writing for Head of Zeus, which was founded by Anthony Cheetham, whose publishing history goes back as far as mine. HoZ is a wonderful independent publisher, highly professional but also extremely friendly. Of course ebooks are one of the most fundamental changes, and I really welcome them. They have meant that almost all of my backlist has been brought out again, mostly by HoZ and Bloomsbury, and of course that never would have happened if my publishers had had to reprint them all on paper, because it simply wouldn’t have been cost-effective. For me personally, one of the most exciting developments has been the rise of independent publishers in Poland since the end of communism in 1989. I have two great publishers in Poland – Albatros in Warsaw and Rebis in Poznan, and I have been friends with them right from the beginning. I also have two publishers for my books in French, Bragelonne in Paris and Livr’S in Belgium. Livr’S are a very young and exciting company and have been bringing out my latest horror novels Ghost Virus and The Children God Forgot (Les Anges Oubliés).
What are some of the most challenging aspects one faces being a writer in today’s world?
Writing original fiction is much harder and more exhausting than most people think. There are countless would-be authors out there, and while I always try to encouraging, I come across so much work that is well-meant and sometimes quite original, but which sadly doesn’t stand a hope of being accepted by any publisher. The usual problems are awkward plot construction, flat characterization, and clumsy use of language. William Burroughs and I spent hours and hours working on ways in which to make a story come to life, dismantling and reconstructing sentences so that the author vanishes, and readers feel as if they are living in the story rather than reading it. William used to call it becoming El Hombre Invisible. I try to write fiction as if I am writing music. Clarity and rhythm are essential. Of course another challenge is finding a good agent – or finding an agent at all. There are plenty of literary agents listed on the internet, but they are even pickier than publishers.
What advice would you offer to others wishing to make writing their lifelong craft?
Be surprising. Be brave. Don’t try and write like anybody else. Be prepared for rejections and disappointments but never give up. Understand that fewer than 14 percent of writers make enough money to be able to live on it, so you may never be able to give up the day job.
For those not familiar with it can you tell us a little about the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award (Nagroda Grahama Mastertona W Wiezieniu Pisane) for the inmates of all of Poland’s penal institutions? Do you think writing in and of itself can be a sort of freedom even in the worst of times?
I thought up the Graham Masterton Written In Prison Award five years ago when I visited Wołow maximum security prison near Wrocław in southern Poland. I spoke to about 100 prisoners there and signed books for them, and it was immediately apparent that they were avid readers – no prizes for guessing why. It occurred to me that if they were encouraged to write short stories themselves, only about 1,000- 1,500 words, it would give them the opportunity to put down their thoughts on paper – either stories that they had dreamed up or their own personal experiences – and that they would know that people outside the walls of the prison had read them and shared them. I considered that it would help to improve their feeling of self-worth – and like all the people I had interviewed as a reporter and as an editor – it would give them the chance to get some burdensome secrets off their chests. I was given the enthusiastic support of the prison’s director Robert Kuczera, as well as the Polish Prison Service, and very special assistance from Marcin Dymanski of the Wrocław Conglomeration, which is an association to improve arts, sports and culture in and around the city of Wrocław. The winner receives a brass shield and the winner and ten runners-up all receive DVD players and certificates. I write a personal letter to every entrant and all entrants receive a souvenir pen. Tight prison restrictions mean that I cannot give them more than that. All of Poland’s penal institutions take part in the contest, and each year we have averaged around 120 entries, which are translated for me so that I can pick the best. Each year – with the exception of this year, because of Covid-19 – I go to Wołow to present the prizes. The stories that have been entered have been extraordinary. Some of them are fantasies. Some are horror stories. Some are heartbreaking personal memoirs. This year I should have enough to collect them together and publish them as a book, both in Polish and in English.
How did it feel to receiver the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers’ Association in 2019?
It’s always gratifying to be acknowledged by one’s peers. I’m not sure how I felt about a ‘lifetime’ award when I still have so many more books to write!
How did you meet your beloved Wiescka? What would you say is the most important thing you learned from her? How was she instrumental to your career over the years?
Wiescka was my secretary at Penthouse magazine. I think we were attracted to each other right from the very beginning. One day she came to work and her dress was unzipped by about six inches at the back. I just went up and zipped it up for her and we looked at each other and I always count that moment as the beginning of what eventually blossomed between us. That Christmas I organized a lavish party for all the staff and contributors to Penthouse at the Penthouse Club in Mayfair. Our printers took us for a slap-up dinner afterwards at the 21 Club and that night the inevitable happened. From her I learned patience, and good humour, and kindness to other people. She helped me enormously because every day I would give her what I had written and she would ruthlessly criticize it. After I parted company with my US agent Julian Bach she took over as my agent and had a matchless way of demanding very large advances! Because she was so attractive, publishers invariably gave in. After she sadly passed away in 2011, I was greatly helped by Maria Raczkowska, who was the publicity director at Albatros publishing in Warsaw at the time. I emailed her each chapter of Community as I wrote them and she read them and give me her opinion. She is happily married now (Mrs Pstragowska) and we are still in regular touch.
How do you think you have evolved most as an author over the years?
I hope that I have become more daring and inventive. My latest horror novel The Children God Forgot deals with a fairly extreme and controversial subject, and I mentally wrestled with myself before writing it. In the end, though, I thought what the hell, if nobody wants to publish it, too bad. But it has just been published by Livr’S and HoZ will be bringing it out in February 2021. I would love to write more historical sagas but they require so much time and so much energy that I doubt if I will write another one just yet. Over the past couple of years I have published two crime thrillers set in the 18th century, Scarlet Widow and The Coven but the research required is incredibly demanding. Did women in 1760 wear knickers? (No, they weren’t invented yet.)
What are your thoughts on the current state of the world in general? How have you been spending your time during the pandemic?
I have political opinions of course but I keep them to myself. I have to be well known to be a successful writer but that doesn’t give me any special authority to spout off about diversity or sexuality or anything else. During the pandemic I have been working as usual although I sorely miss the frequent evenings out with Dawn and the endless conversations we always have.
What projects are you currently working on?
My new haunted house novel The House of a Hundred Whispers is published on October 1 so I have been promoting that. I am also promoting the story Cutting The Mustard the last story that Dawn and I wrote together, which will soon be appearing in The Horror Zine Book of Ghost Stories, and I have just finished a short story of my own The Red Butcher of Wrocław which will be published in both the USA and Poland in time for Christmas. I am writing a third horror novel Blitz Mentality featuring Det Sgt Jamila Patel and Det Jerry Pardoe who featured in Ghost Virus and The Children God Forgot.
What would you like to say in closing?
My website and my Facebook pages have given me the opportunity to make personal friends with so many readers, and I really appreciate that. When it comes to writing I am up the walls (as we used to say in Cork) and so I don’t have nearly enough time to reply to every one of them, but I would like them all to know how much I appreciate their enthusiasm and their warmth.