Interviews In The Machine : Jonathan Butcher
This week, Machine Mean will be running our review of the latest book from author Jonathan Butcher. In advance of this, we took the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan and poke at his soft bits and see what came loose. Give it a read and don’t forget to come back on Thursday for our thoughts on The Children At The Bottom Of The Gardden.
MM: Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from? Why writing? Where does your passion come from? What do you eat?
JB: That’s like a game-show question! I’m Jonathan, from South West England. From the moment I was able to transcribe ideas onto paper, I’ve been writing stories about weird, dark subject matter. I have little idea where my passion comes from – maybe from my folks having read to me from a young age, and maybe from a natural curiosity. And I eat pretty much everything, but at the moment I’m on a protein kick because I’m trying to de-scrawn myself and gain a couple of muscles, here and there.
MM: How do you feel that your narrative sensibilities have been shaped? Have you ever thought about where your art comes from?
JB: I write about what interests me, what makes me laugh, what grosses me out, and sometimes what moves me. For me, the most important aspect of a story is its structure; if it doesn’t have a satisfying beginning, middle, and an end (no matter how obscure) then I consider it a failure. I started reading adult horror at the age of about 10 but I grew to read plenty of other genre and non-genre stuff, so over time I’ve picked up a lot of influences. I’ve no idea why I’ve always been obsessed with such twisted subjects though – I had a good childhood and my parents and friends never encouraged my love for horror. I’ve just always been interested in understanding the things that many other people shy away from: the cruel secret, the things in the dark, and the good person who does something abominable.
MM: The characters in your stories often seem to be quite complex and laid out. Do you devote time to wrapping your head around them to the point that they are mostly fully formed by the time you start writing? Or does that happen more organically as the story also comes into being?
JB: My characters are very important to me. Even if they are exaggerated and outlandish, I want them to feel real within the context of my story. I very rarely plan them out in too much detail. Their personality forms during the first draft and is then expanded upon and refined in future drafts. I think that the characters in The Children at the Bottom of the Gardden are my most successfully-developed so far, but that book took 10 years (off and on) to write, and had five full redrafts, so I guess that’s to be expected. For me, the most exciting moments I experience as a writer are when one of my characters does something I wasn’t expecting. That’s when I know they’ve taken on a life of their own.
MM: Tell us about how this book came to be.
JB: I started The Children at the Bottom of the Gardden in about 2007. I’d tried writing a couple of novels before but never got further than about the 17,000-word mark, because I had been attempting to make them “deeper” than I was capable of at that point. The only reason I managed to complete Gardden is because I focused on writing about people and things that interest me, rather than trying to say something profound. I just chucked as many twisted ideas in there as I could, making myself laugh and occasionally retch, and then after the first draft was complete I realised how much work I still had to do!
MM: This book weaves a complex tapestry of characters that dips and weaves into each other. Did you have to conceptualize all of these plot-lines on their own at first or were you able to keep all of that present in your head as you wrote it all at once?
JB: I was about 70,000 words into the initial draft when it occurred to me how ambitious I was being writing this as my first book. I had 6/7 main characters, each with multiple plot arcs. At that point I started putting together brainstorms and detailed character backgrounds, and listing the number of sub-plots between each character that needed resolutions. It was intimidating, infuriating at times, but very satisfying when it all came together.
MM: And related to that, is there a particular character or character relationship in this that you feel particularly drawn to?
JB: I don’t think that there is any single character in the book that I feel more drawn to than the others. The more “realistic” characters came from my own life experiences, and the more OTT ones came from all the films/books I’ve watched/read. If I had to pick one of my creations who I’m most proud of, it would have to be Gary. He’s such a tragic, hopeless, and (for me) horribly believable character, and I feel like his chapters have a real energy to them.
MM: You seem to have made some deliberate formatting choices with this, for example some sections in all caps or spelling in some cases of specific words. “Gardden” is certainly an older usage of the word. Can you cast any light on these choices?
JB: The formatting comes from the fact that, while each chapter is written in the third person (she said/he said) they are very much subjective to each character’s personality and dialogue. Henry is like a lame version of a Guy Richie cockney wideboy, so instead of writing “fucking” the word is written in his accent: “fackin”. Locker has a very blunt, abrasive view of the world, so I wanted his chapters to reflect this – that’s why they’re in block capitals. And so on. As for the spelling of “gardden”, you’ll notice that it’s only written that way at certain times and in certain contexts … and that’s all I’m willing to say, for fear of spoilers. I think that my formatting choices may be clearer in the physical copy of the book, because each character has their own font to suit the style of their chapters.
MM: What Good Girls Do was obviously a starkly written, disturbing book. And while this new offering is quite a bit easier to get through, there are still some fairly graphic, disturbing scenes. The horror industry has received criticism in the past for the content we put out into the world. Why do you feel like your writing is pulled in this direction?
JB: Horror is there to horrify, plain and simple. I don’t think that I’m an author who writes shocking scenes without a purpose behind them – I have no interest in producing that kind of horror. I like the transgressive, and I like there to be a point behind extreme content. Sure, there are some unpleasant scenes in Gardden, but I think there’s only one which you could argue to be truly excessive, and that one is so over-the-top that it makes me laugh! I refuse to pull back from the shock of torture, murder, and violence. I just hope that I manage to make the level of viciousness suit the context of each story. I am a firm believer in free speech, and I think that it’s transparently obvious that if someone doesn’t like horror then they shouldn’t be reading it.
MM: Finally, what excites you about the state of the genre, what authors do you enjoy? And considering you have now put out two successive books that couldn’t be more different from one another, where do you see yourself going from here?
JB: I don’t feel qualified to comment on the horror genre as a whole, but I like Adam Nevill, H P Lovecraft, Duncan Ralston, Paula Ashe, and I have just discovered Poppy Z Brite. I’m currently enjoying The Stake by the late Richard Laymon, despite the fact that he struggles to describe a woman or teen girl without sounding like a pervert with drool running down his chin. As for my writing, it’ll probably continue to remain varied. I’ve been working on a novel about religious and political extremism but I needed to take a break from that for a while. I’m hoping to write a horror novella next, which is looking like it will feature possession, demons, cultists, and the usual weirdness that keeps me scribbling.
Jonathan Butcher has been writing weird stories since he was a child. He vividly remembers being 7 years old and banned by his teacher from writing about monsters or ghosts for a full term, but he can only assume that this encouraged him to write about them even more. He is a glutton for punishment, in that he not only writes for a hobby and passion, but also for a living. He lives just outside of Birmingham and spends most of his time immersed in horror, VR, strange music, dark strong beer, and all sorts of other naughtiness.