Interviews In The Machine : Anthony Watson
Starting last week, we have been doing a feature on Dark Frontiers, a pair of novellas bridging the worlds of horror and westerns. We started with an interview with Benedict Jones as well as a review of his contribution to the book.
This week, we shift our focus to the other half of this team, Anthony Watson. Many will be familiar with Anthony from his work with Dark Minds Press but he has earned acclaim on his own as an author as well. Take a look as I sat down with Anthony to get at his process and craft as a writer. And make sure you tune in tomorrow for my review of his novella, The Company Of The Dead.
MM : First of all, thank you for taking time to answer some questions for us. Why don’t we start with a little about you and what led you to the craft of writing?
AW : No problem! And thank you for asking – and showing such an interest in Dark Frontiers.
By day (well, four days a week) I work in a pathology laboratory and spend most of my time looking down a microscope at cells to work out if people have cancer or are at risk of developing it. Home is the beautiful Northumbrian coast where I live with my wife Judith and our two dogs, an environment and landscape which can’t fail to inspire.
As to where the desire to write originated I’m not entirely sure but I do remember enjoying my English language classes at school before heading down the scientific path for my higher qualifications. Reading and films were – and remain – my main source of entertainment so I guess all that input has led to stimulating my imagination to such an extent that I have to let some of it out.
Without sounding too pretentious, (I hope), writing is something I need to do – just to get all the stuff out of my head. It’s my only real creative talent – I can’t draw and although I play the guitar the urge – or ability – to compose my own music just isn’t there. That said, I really enjoy the process of writing and it’s something I’ll continue to do irrespective of sales or success.
MM : What do you consider to be your genre and what do you feel draws you to it?
AW : Definitely horror. I write it because that’s what I’ve read the most of in the course of my life – which begs the question as to why I read horror. Again, it’s not something I really know the answer to but for whatever reason, horror seems to resonate with me. Reading for me is entertainment, an escape if you will and I think that’s what all genre fiction provides, creating worlds which are far-removed from the humdrum of everyday life. Science fiction and fantasy provide the same kind of escape but I don’t get the same enjoyment from those genres as I do from horror. Quite what that says about me I’m not sure…
MM : You have a novel coming soon, Witnesses, to be put out by Crowded Quarantine Publications. Is there anything you’d like to share about that?
AW : Witnesses takes as its starting point the Book of Revelations in the bible – but don’t let that put you off – in particular the prophesies around the end of the world and the final battle of Armageddon. It’s made up of four narrative strands which are set in different locations and times; World War One Belgium; Virginia, USA in the 1940s; Penang, Malaysia in the 1970s; and present day North East England. The four storylines run parallel with each other and the narrative of the novel is fractured, moving back and forth between them as it progresses.
It’s maybe a risky approach but hopefully won’t be too confusing – the four strands are actually linked and the idea is that revelations in one strand will progress another of the narratives, and so on and so forth, unlocking the mystery of the novel piece by piece.
That’s the plan anyway.
I’m very excited about the release of Witnesses, and still can’t quite believe that I’m having a novel published. It is, to coin the cliché, a dream come true and I’m deeply appreciative of Adam and Zoe at CQP for showing faith in my book. I loved writing it and I hope readers enjoy it and can lose themselves in the world(s) I’ve created.
MM : You have had a fair amount of time performing the publisher role of things. How do you feel this has affected your process as a writer?
AW : In practical terms it curtailed the amount of time I had available to write. As you know yourself, the time it takes to get a book ready for publication is huge – most of that time being taken up by the formatting process which tends to be nothing less than frustrating and which brings out the worst features of the operating systems you’re trying to get to communicate with each other and, certainly in my experience, the person doing the formatting too.
That said, I’m immensely proud of all the books myself and Ross put out through Dark Minds Press and it was a real pleasure working with all the authors and artists to produce what will hopefully be recognised as a high quality range of books.
I enjoyed the editing process – it’s something which is much easier when you’re looking at someone else’s work but I think I’ve tried to transfer what I’ve learned through those experiences to my own writing.
I made the decision last year to leave Dark Minds simply because I no longer have the time to dedicate to it. The risk was that if I continued my loss of enthusiasm would lead to a substandard service for the authors we were working with. My experiences with Dark Minds have definitely increased my admiration for all the other small presses out there who are still producing great books.
MM : Turning to Dark Frontiers, what can you tell us about The Company of the Dead? How did this story come about?
AW : The Company of the Dead is a horror western novella and features the characters of Nate Lee, an ex-Confederate artilleryman who has decided to travel the country after the end of the Civil War who meets a Cherokee shaman, Wolf, on his travels. The pair find themselves caught up in a tale of revenge, with a shaman from a massacred tribe unleashing a company of zombie Union cavalrymen.
I’ve always been a fan of westerns, a huge part of my childhood was spent watching films and TV programmes set in the wild west and that love of the genre has carried through to the present. I love reading them too but had always felt nervous of trying one of my own, unsure as to whether or not I could pull it off.
It was while I was working on Ben’s collection Ride the Dark Country that I decided I’d have a go. His weird westerns inspired me to put pen to paper and, I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences I’ve ever had. The words really did fly out and I rattled the novella off in record time (for me anyway).
The opening scene of the novella is based on the real events of Sand Creek in 1864 where the US army attacked and massacred a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho – mainly women and children. Those events formed the basis of the film Soldier Blue and I can still remember being intrigued by the film when it was released, scrutinising the posters and stills in the cinema and being frustrated that I was too young to go and see it. Later, it provided inspiration for a scene in Centennial, the TV series based on James A Michener’s novel (which I subsequently read twice) and it made a huge impact on me. I guess I’d been waiting all these years to write my own version.
MM : Personally, I think that horror and westerns make for great companions. There’s great potential for stories about isolation and of the unknown. Why do you think we don’t see more of it?
AW : I agree! America is still full of wide, open spaces but that was even more so the case back in the 1800s – the perfect landscape in which to hide all manners of horrors.
I’m really not sure why the weird western is still a relatively small sub-genre as there are some outstanding examples of it out there. Joe Lansdale has written some incredible horror westerns (and some incredible “straight” westerns too) and Willie Meikle has knocked a few out of the park too. It’s fair to say that some fans are a bit, well, protective of their chosen genre and maybe it’s the case that they don’t want it sullied by cross-pollination with others. It may be the worry that the stories will be neither one thing or the other, that the individual genre elements are diluted in the mix but personally I hold to the opposite view, that some kind of synergy occurs and the end result is greater than the sum of its parts.
MM : How do you go about preparing a story set in a historical time period? Is there anything you try to do or avoid in creating a story and characters that feel authentic but are also accessible for a modern audience?
AW : Lots of research. Which isn’t a problem because I love doing it and finding out more about the time period I’m setting the story in. There’s the risk, of course, of shoe-horning facts into the story and turning it into a history lesson (or doing a “Simmons” as I call it) and I’ve had to rein myself in more than once.
It’s important to get the details right though and I try to be as accurate as I possibly can be. I probably stress a little too much about getting things right – as Ben will testify given it’s usually him I’ll contact to check stuff.
I probably stress less over characters and stories given that I’ve found that really, very little has changed in terms of human behaviour over the centuries. Contemporary events usually echo those that have happened in the past so describing a massacre, a battle, a murder – whatever – from the past will resonate with modern readers.
It would be great if mankind learned from the past but unfortunately that seems to be a step too far.
MM : Is there going to be a volume two?
AW : Yes. We’ve just finished edits on A Lonely Place to Die which we wrote together. It’s a direct follow-up to The Company of the Dead and once again features Nate and Wolf, this time journeying across the High Sierras to California. En route, they meet up with the mountain man Tomahawk Val who is a character Ben has used in a number of his weird western shorts and together face a deadly, supernatural foe.
MM : What does the future bring for Anthony Watson?
AW : Long life and happiness hopefully. And hopefully a good reception for Witnesses.
With regards writing I’ve begun work on a second novel which will be another historical piece set in two time periods, 16th Century Russia and 1942, the latter action taking place in an Arctic convoy.
More immediately, I’ve been working with Ben again, creating a fictional special operations group from the Second World War called DAMOCLES whose role is to combat the occult machinations of the Nazis.
We’ve done most of the groundwork already, sorting out characters and the various missions we’ll be sending them on. What we’ll end up with is a collection of linked stories, one for each year of the war, with a grand finale novella set in 1945.
I’ll still write short stories and sub them for publication. A dream would be to have a collection published – with 36 stories under my belt so far there are certainly plenty to choose from!