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Friday, 23 September 2016

Shipping Now: The Authentic William James

The book's now shipping and preorders are being filled. They're preceded by an interview conducted by Gwenda Bond for Subterranean. It's
on the company's Facebook page; follow the link to see the whole thing.
Today we’re bringing you a fascinating new interview with Stephen Gallagher about how he created the character of investigator Sebastian Becker. Gallagher is a novelist, screenwriter and director specialising in contemporary suspense. His latest novel about Becker, special investigator to the lord chancellor’s visitor in lunacy, is The Authentic William James. It earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and we expect it to start shipping soon. Get your orders in now; you’re in for a treat whether you’re already a fan of the series or this is your entry point.

Gwenda Bond: Where did the idea for this series start?

Stephen Gallagher: I suppose the first seeds were sown when I was around twelve or thirteen and I answered an ad in the back pages of a Sexton Blake paperback...

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Charlie

Down by the British Museum in Bloomsbury runs Montague Street, a terrace of Georgian townhouses of the classic Upstairs/Downstairs kind. They're now mostly brass-plate offices and boutique hotels, and I can never walk along it without thinking of Charlie Grant.

Charles L to the literary world, Charlie to just about everyone who knew him. The Montague Street connection is tenuous - he and Kathryn stayed in one of those hotels after a British Fantasycon where Charlie was toastmaster, having been the previous year's Guest of Honour. It's just one of those details that evokes a host of other memories and (see what I'm doing here?) the evocative detail is what Charles L Grant, writer and anthologist, was all about.

The '80s was a great time to be in horror. Already a genre with a strong tradition, in the 80s it was pretty much rampant. Writers such as Ira Levin, Thomas Tryon, and John Farris had already begun to break down the wall between genre and the mainstream, and then Stephen King drove a tank through the breach.

I count myself hugely lucky to have been finding my feet at just the right time. Two personal landmark events stand out in my memory; one being my first sale to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the other Charlie picking The Jigsaw Girl for Shadows 9. Publishers were mainly buying horror novels because they were making money. But if Charles L Grant bought your story, it was because he thought it was good.

Every field needs its controversies and ours was the Quiet Horror vs Splatterpunk debate. Unlike the Sad Puppies debacle it was an enriching and enjoyable hook for panel discussions, bar chats, fan writing... the question was basically over the relative merits of showing vs suggesting. Charles was widely acknowledged as Quiet Horror's Grand Master, both in his own fiction and in the influential Shadows anthology series on which he was editor. King praised his eminence as a creator of 'small-town horror', the form that's currently been so effectively mined and celebrated in Netflix's Stranger Things.

Many of those that I count among my 'cohort' have remained friends to this day. I only wish that Charlie, who left us on this day ten years ago, were still here among them.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Abroad Thoughts from Home

This is probably the most niche blog post ever, but I wish I'd had access to something like it when the need first arose. It's the Idiots' Guide for a British writer joining the staff of a US TV show. How you land the gig is up to you. This is just about the admin.

What used to be a rarity is becoming more common. For the British writer it's almost invariably a sideways move following a notable success at home or as part of the package in the acquisition of a successful format. Freelanced scripts aren't unknown, but they're exceptional. As a rule American TV drama is staff-written and the writing staff all work on-site. For all you need to know about staffing and more, I can make no higher recommendation than the Children of Tendu podcast.

This is an ad-hoc list that I threw together for a friend who asked for some advice. It's not authoritative, or comprehensive, and I'm taking no responsibility for any errors or omissions.

If it happens for you - and I hope it may - it's a brilliant adventure, and maybe some of the following will help to smooth the process when the time comes.
  • If you supply material to the American market but stay resident in England, then you can do that with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) which means the IRS will leave you alone and you'll pay your taxes on the income as normal in the UK.
  • BUT if you're on a TV staff then you'll relocate, most likely to LA (though some shows have writers' rooms in NY). The room is almost always in LA even if the show is shot in Atlanta, Toronto, or wherever.
  • For that you'll need an 01 visa (Alien of Extraordinary Ability) to get in, and a social security number to get paid.
  • For the visa I had to make an appointment at the US embassy to show my employment contract and provide evidence of past achievements. It wasn't anything horrendous, just a lot of faff in a tearing hurry. Shows are greenlit at short notice and staff up quickly, so you don't get much lead time.
  • My US employer hired a service in London to deal with my application and fast-track it through. I got my passport back at my hotel the evening before my flight!
  • The payroll company will want a social security number in order to start paying your salary. Once in LA you can apply for it in person. There's an office on Olive Avenue in Burbank. It can take a few weeks to come through as it has to go via Homeland Security. My income backed up while I was waiting.
  • You'll also need to provide your employer with a Certificate of Continuing Liability from HMRC, which basically says that despite working in the US you're still a UK resident and taxpayer. Without it they'll withhold Medicare and Social Security payments from your salary, and you won't be able to reclaim the money. I was completely unaware of this, and in that first year it cost me dear.
  • To work for any of the WGA-signatory production companies - which is all of the reputable ones - you'll need to be a member of the Writers' Guild of America. 
  • Writers from Europe are enrolled into the WGAEast. Existing members of the Writers Guild of Great Britain can have the joining fee waived.
  • Dues are paid quarterly. Your WGA membership will provide you with medical cover.
  • You'll find that most of your coworkers will have their salaries paid into a Loan Out Corporation or LLC. My experience here is limited. I just worked and got paid as an individual. As an expat I already had enough admin to contend with.
  • Once you have your SSN you're in the system and you'll have to file an annual return with the IRS and pay taxes on your US income. This is claimed as a tax credit against your UK liabilities, so you don't get taxed on the same money twice.
  • If you're working in California you'll be paying Federal Tax and California State Tax.
  • A friend of mine who worked in California for one year (not in the TV business) filed his year-end return using a program called Turbotax. I felt much safer having a US accountant do it. Having said which...
  • My first accountant had no experience with expats while I had none of the US tax system, which resulted in various misunderstandings and penalties. Now I'm with an outfit with expertise in the tax affairs of non-residents.
  • On arrival I booked into a motel for a couple of weeks and looked for longer-term accommodation while I was getting into the work. You can take your chances on Craigslist but the premiere resource for LA is westsiderentals.com. You can search their listings for free but to get contact details you have to register. 
  • I paid the modest fee and searched for a furnished guest house, which is generally self-contained accommodation attached to a bigger property. 
  • The search categories for a reasonable commute to the major studios are Santa Monica/Westside, Hollywood/West Hollywood, Studio City/San Fernando Valley.
  • But find out where your writers' room is going to be. Many productions set up their offices in a rented suite away from a studio lot.
  • Before heading out I booked a long rental on a car. For some reason it worked out cheaper doing it from the UK. Booking from here I got the Collision Damage Waiver included; had I done it on arrival that would have been an extra.
  • Alamo was offering the cheapest car rental at that time.
  • I don't know if it's still the case, but renting a Satnav as an extra came at some ridiculous price. I took my own with a US map preloaded, and it was invaluable.
Pay special attention to the Certificate of Continuing Liability. No one warned me and, as I said, it proved an expensive omission.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

See a Dinosaur Eat a Cow. You Know You Want To.

Here's a film I'd never seen before, and have finally caught up with. I don't quite know what to make of it. As you might expect it's a B-movie through and through, but the production values took me by surprise. With the Mexican locations, and widescreen cinematography, its look is great.

Like the later Valley of Gwangi, it's based on an idea by Willis O'Brien. In fact, it's based on the same idea. The backroom genius of The Lost World and King Kong had a hand in the script but none in the special effects, which is entirely the wrong way around.

It's a cowboys-and-monster movie. Apparently English and Spanish-language versions were shot back-to-back. In places it lapses into colourful travelogue but, to be honest, you're grateful for the distraction. Unless you're a fan of ranch boundary disputes it's a long, long wait for the dinosaur action we've bought in for. And when it comes...

Well, what the hell. It's called The Beast of Hollow Mountain and we're not here because we mistook it for the Tarkovsky.

You know what they say - "If the cooking in this house doesn't meet your standards, try lowering your standards."



(Re that trailer, and just for the avoidance of doubt - no, there is no such thing as a 'Sneak Peak".)

Director Edward Nassour described his patented "Regiscope" process as a form of electronically programmed animatronic model work. It was later established by Cinefx's Don Shay that the dinosaur action was mostly achieved by swapping out multiple models in different poses, elsewhere known as 'replacement animation'.

Though the technique had been used with success in George Pal's Puppetoons, Ray Harryhausen described its use in live-action features as "not quite practical".

Thursday, 1 September 2016

DANCING WITH SHADOWS, the Charles L Grant Blogathon


Neil Snowdon writes:
12th-18th September I’ll be hosting a celebration of Charlie and his work, with contributions from myself, Ramsey Campbell, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Morris, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Christopher Golden, James A. Moore, Lynda E. Rucker, Stephen Bacon, Mark west, James Everington, Thomas F. Monteleone, Nancy Collins, Stephen Bissette, Stephen Gallagher, Jean-Daniel Breque, Tim Lebbon, Jonathan Oliver, Marc Laidlaw, Steven Savile, Kealan Patrick Burke, P.D. Cacek and John Langan and more to come…
I'm scheduling my contribution for September 15th, the tenth anniversary of this enormously respected artist's death. For more details and for links to the other contributors, see Aim for the Heart at https://neilsnowdon.wordpress.com/.

Photo credit (right) Mary Jasch

Monday, 22 August 2016

Jurassic Park, Unearthed

This is weird.

While sorting through some old files I came across this film review from the year of Jurassic Park's release. I don't remember writing it, or for whom it was written. But dated references to video (ie, VHS), to the then-unbuilt Universal Studios ride, and to competing movies... they all have the feel of another era, whereas the movie still seems to me like pretty fresh goods.

I rewatched it recently, and its age was never an issue. And what I wrote back then is still a fair reflection of what I think of the movie now. Durability beats novelty any day.

So here it is, from '93:
Over in the US, at least, the commercial shape of this summer's movie season appears already to have been set. CLIFFHANGER as the well-timed warm-up act, not quite a contender but perfectly fine to keep us going until the blockbusters come along. SLIVER straight down the tubes, gathering critical disdain and playing to empty houses. THE LAST ACTION HERO a major embarrassment; a ton of money, a mess of a film, and limping along in the wake of the one movie that was obviously a clear winner by the end of the day that it opened. They're still counting, but JURASSIC PARK has taken over one hundred million dollars within the first two weeks of its release. It managed this by opening everywhere, a massive investment in print costs alone; and in some locations this was maximised by chaining the print through a succession of projectors to play two or three auditoria at once. They were filling them, too.

Is it worth it? I think it probably is. As a suspense movie, it's about half as good as JAWS. But the realisation of the dinosaurs is technically perfect and there are some set-pieces (most memorably a Tyrannosaurus attack on a jeep and a stalking through an empty visitor centre) that are worth the price of admission alone. JURASSIC PARK may be a so-so story, but it's a magnificent ride. It'll make a great feature on the Universal Studios tour (are they planning one? Are you kidding?) and it'll clean up on video. The merchandising is, perhaps, another matter; there's no protectable copyright on the dinosaurs themselves and all they really have to sell is the logo, which resembles something out of the Ahlbergs' FUNNYBONES. Anyone can cash in on the fever, and everyone seems to be doing it.

Spielberg has added a few typical personal touches to the narrative of Michael Crichton's spare and one-dimensional novel, most noticeably in the Sam Neill character's reluctant conversion to the role of protective father-figure. There's a hug-a-stegosaurus scene which is pure Spielberg (seeing this and thinking back to ET, pets must have filled a big void in the director's early life) and he's dealt with the book's least appealing aspect, the whining and stereotypical characterisation of Hammond's young grand-daughter, by giving her a piece of the action instead of simply making her a drag on the Guy Stuff. Richard Attenborough's John Hammond character is rather wasted - he comes over as well-meaning and dim, a Walt Disney without the buried dark streak - and there's a general lack of any point to be made. The novel's point, that there are penalties to be paid for hubristic science, is buried somewhat. Not much surprise there; it's a hard line to sell in the context of the fun we've been having.

This kind of cinema is the modern equivalent of the sensational theatre spectaculars of the Victorian era where one could see Ben Hur's chariot race live on stage with full teams of horses running flat-out on rollers. Great fun, low art. And if it leaves nothing lasting beyond a sense of awe at the occasion. . . well, pardon me for saying so, but what a strange life it must be in which that counts for nothing.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Three

You have written a considerable number of short stories, some of which have been published as collections (‘Out of His Mind’, ‘Plots and Misadventures’). What are your thoughts about the differences between writing short stories and novels? Have any of your short stories been developed further (in any media)?

Short stories are tricky, and when you get one just right it’s very satisfying. In my distant youth, enthused by the BBC adaptations, I read John Galsworthy’s sequence of Forsyte novels and I vividly remember a passage in which Young Jolyon talked about the difference between painting in oils and watercolours. The gist was that in oils you build up from the canvas, and along the way you can try things out and make revisions and cover your mistakes. Whereas with a watercolour you lay your brush on the paper, and if the stroke isn’t right, then the whole thing’s ruined. That’s how I see short stories – they work or they don’t; there’s no margin for error.

I’ve adapted some of my short stories for radio – By the River, Fontainbleau, The Horn and Life Line. They were all for the Fear on Four slot and they keep showing up on BBC4 Extra. A lot of my radio stuff got wiped, one of the producers told me. Off-air copies get traded between collectors but the broadcast masters are gone.

The notion of a TV anthology show seems to raise its head every two or three years. Producers love the idea of them, but commissioners and schedulers are much cooler. You can more or less guarantee that when an anthology show does get commissioned, it’ll be first in line to be pre-empted for a sports fixture or a special event. The viewing figures get driven down, and then the figures are used as proof that anthology shows aren’t popular.

I’ve seen you at a couple of conferences recently and you also talk to writers’ groups. What do you personally get out of this, and what do you think aspiring writers might gain from your input?

Well, it’s a great opportunity to talk about how hard it all is and to scare off the competition! But seriously, if anyone can get something useful out of anything I’ve got to say, that’s great. It’s not like I’m making it easier for anyone.

There’s a vanity element to it as well. I spend most of my days sitting in a room at a keyboard. Tell me there’s a place with a bar and a willing audience and a bunch of friends to catch up with afterwards, and you’re pretty much describing the main social pleasure that this job has to offer.

What are your feelings about the indies and what purpose do you think they serve, bearing in mind that their circulation is often quite small?

Independent publishing has always played an enormous role in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. In early science fiction there was the Gnome Press; in fantasy and horror there was Arkham House. They were mould-breakers in their way, and they were an important bridge between the pulps and the mainstream book market. Some of today’s indies continue that tradition. Then you’ve got all the small-circulation magazines and anthologies that offer new writers a place to get their voices heard and to sharpen up their craft. If they didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Two

Getting back to your novels, and thinking about your early work, where did the inspiration come from for books such as ‘Chimera’, ‘Oktober’, ‘Rain’ and ‘The Boat House’?

I can answer for definite with Chimera because that came from a passage in Vance Packard’s book The People Shapers, where he quoted a Rand Corporation study predicting the routine production of laboratory sub-humans by the year 2025. I didn’t take that as a solid prediction, but I did foresee a process by which it could come about. It doesn’t matter how responsible the scientific establishment is, there’s always someone with a dodgy degree out there, looking for a chance to make his name by pushing the envelope.

For the rest of them, I’ve no doubt that if you dig through the file boxes with all my original notes and papers, somewhere you’ll find a little scrap of notebook paper with an illegible scrawl from the moment where light first dawned. It is actually like that. You know you’ve got a goer when it’s like you can see the entire book folded up inside a seed. It’s only the start of a fairly enormous process, of course, but when it happens you can sit back happy, because you know you’re in the game and you’re going somewhere.

You famously wrote the screenplays for some of the classic Doctor Who episodes (under the pen-name: John Lydecker). How did this opportunity arise? Considering this and other screenplays you’ve written for television series, how do you go about writing stories involving established characters?

TV characters are designed to be written by many hands. They’re not like fully-formed characters, but more like stripped-down racing versions of the same. So once you’ve got your head around their regular function in the weekly structure, you’ve a good idea of where you can and can’t go with them.

You can’t change them or teach them too much, unless you’ve been given some significant change to work in as part of the production plan. When that happens, it becomes a narrative point that you can factor into your story in a way that you hope will make it stand out. In my two Doctor Whos I got to write out two assistants and one robot dog. Which was great, because in character terms it meant I’d been given something I could write towards.

I got the job because I was working on a science fiction radio play called An Alternative to Suicide, and my radio producer sent the script over to the Doctor Who office. I got a call to drop in for a chat, and everything grew from there.

To what extent do you feel that the real world should feature in your work? By this I mean politics, wars, developing technology and topical issues. What control do you have over these areas when work is commissioned for television or film?

I’m kind of ambivalent on this. I did talk before about the importance of location and sense of place, so that’s me speaking up for realistic texture. But when it comes to politics or technology you’re really talking about something that right now feels like the only reality there is, but which is going to change faster than you can nail it down. Blair’s Britain? That’s yesterday already.

So I think my attitude is to let the timeless stuff seep in, but steer away from the notion that your reason for being here is to tell it like it is. You can’t write just to explain background. If you want to make a political point that doesn’t date, put it in a solid story. Solid stories are imperishable. Why has some of Brecht’s stuff worn so well? Because his narratives are compelling regardless of whether you care about the politics. It’s because the stories work that he leaves you more politically aware than you were going in.

Technology’s tricky in a different way. Think about how the mobile phone affected plotting. I put some computer stuff in Oktober that dates it terribly now.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part One

You have been in the writing business for some time now. What would you say were your best and worst experiences?

Fortunately the best way outnumber the worst, and they’ve mostly come out of the experience of researching the novels. I do try to achieve an authentic sense of place in the writing and that’s always involved a lot of travel, meeting new people, and getting into situations that I’d never otherwise encounter.

Back in the early days, when I’d just gone freelance and I was dead broke, this would mostly involve backpacking around Europe or America. For The Boat House I went all over Western Karelia and into what was then Soviet Russia. These trips generated some very rare and vivid moments of epiphany, a fair number of them on railway station platforms at 3 o’clock in the morning.

When you’re out on your own like that, travelling with a purpose but full of uncertainties, it’s like you lose a few layers of skin and become very sharp and sensitised. That feeds back into the writing. I’d often find that the thoughts that I recorded or jotted down at those times would not only influence the entire tone of the book, but would often make it into the text almost verbatim.

Worst moments – I’d say they’ve been whenever I’ve been pushed off a project that I’d started from nothing and brought to within sight of completion. That’s happened to me about four times. You just feel sick and helpless when it happens. Only one of those projects went on to get made.

Would you say that your writing style has changed as you have become more experienced? In what ways?

I’m not entirely sure that it has. I can look at prose that I wrote at the beginning of my career and as far as the writing style is concerned, give or take a few infelicities, I’d be happy to have turned that stuff out last week. The actual voice doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

I suppose that what changes is the quality of what you have to say, as opposed to the way you say it. That’s where things have definitely matured and evolved, I hope. I mean, I was first published in my mid-twenties, and I knew nothing about anything. Now I know nothing about a much greater range of subjects.

Apart from writing novels and short stories, you’ve had a lot of success in other areas – film, television and radio. What would you say are the pitfalls when moving into these areas? Can you give me some examples from your own experience? What frustrates you as a writer when dealing with these media?

The prose writer and the screenwriter live in two universes that move at very different speeds. The screenwriter who doesn’t understand that will turn out books that read like novelisations. The novelist who doesn’t get it will write a script that can’t be shot.

You need to be aware of the need for a change in pace, not just in what you write, but in the way you work. Okay, so a story’s a story. But you spend a novel looking inside out from inside the characters, while in a screenplay everything’s determined by what you see them say and do.

You couldn’t have a more radical difference between the two forms. When prose is described as cinematic, it’s often anything but.

I suppose the most obvious difference is that for a novel you go up the mountain, brood for a long time, and come down with something that’s finished and complete. Whereas on a screen project you don’t get the final say on anything. What you get is everyone else’s notes, pretty much from day one. After a while it starts to feel like everyone including the office manager (it’s happened) gets the opportunity to have a say over what you do.

The writer, of course, never gets to change anyone else’s work.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Click to enlarge

Sunday, 5 June 2016

If you want to feel old...

...here's what Chad looks like now.

Movie prop collector Ian has sent me this display cabinet photo of the Chimera prosthetic head that he picked up on Ebay, one of the three created for the 1991 ITV production. A lucky find, given that it was listed there as a "Planet of the Apes Mask".


Here's how he looked in better days:


The flexible latex foam skin isn't made to last, and it doesn't. Ian writes: "There are quite a few feet of cables on it which I wound around the base of the head it is mounted on. Quite dry and crispy when I got it but the skin is now sealed and should hopefully last well."


"Planet of the Apes Mask" isn't the only odd description to surface in recent weeks. Here's a catalogue listing from an auction being held by Bamfords in Derby next Wednesday, June 8th:


Doctor Who and the Prisoner of Azkaban?? It's actually one of the Vanir helmets from my story Terminus.

Looks in rather good nick, too. I might have been tempted to put in a bid... but I ain't going up against that J K Rowling, she's got way more firepower than I can muster.

 UPDATE: With corrected details, the Vanir mask went for a hammer price of £1,400.00.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Showreels


Directed by


Written by