The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Graham Thomas

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Graham Thomas

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Summary: Jill enjoyed Maria & The Devil by Graham Thomas. It's a dark revenge fantasy with a western flavour in which themes of revenge, strong storytelling and evocative descriptions of landscape and setting combine to create a thoroughly enjoyable read. There was planty to chat about when the author popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 4 April 2013
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Jill enjoyed Maria & The Devil by Graham Thomas. It's a dark revenge fantasy with a western flavour in which themes of revenge, strong storytelling and evocative descriptions of landscape and setting combine to create a thoroughly enjoyable read. There was planty to chat about when the author popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Graham Thomas: I think I’m supposed to imagine up some ideal demographic but, if I’m honest, in this respect I can only see my friends and family reading my books. If they can a) forget their obligation to read the thing due to me being a friend who’ll get stroppy if they don’t, b) get to the end and c) actually enjoy the read despite point ‘a’ then I will have done what I set out to do. That sounds flippant, but I’m actually serious – our relationship is an extra barrier between them and the world of the story and so, from the outset, I am up against it. This is good. This makes me work harder. It makes me focus more on the story and on creating the universe it takes place in - the details, the textures, the expanse of the landscape are all meticulously created to strengthen the central story and make my friends forget that their friend wrote it. If they can forget that, find them self in Montana, for example, feel concern for Maria then my job is done and it’s to the bar. But of course I am not so altruistic, so I like to add little signatures and flourishes here and there so that maybe they might chuckle at a gag and say 'yeah, my pal wrote this and no other.' It’s the eternal contradiction - I want anonymity in my art (ha! I said art) but I want legacy but where the twain shall meet? As for demographics – I dunno, 16 to however old my mum is at the time of the book’s publication.

  • BB: We love a good revenge western here at Bookbag. What made you combine this western background with a supernatural thriller for Maria and the Devil?

GT: My old man loves Westerns, and as a child we would watch them together. I always wondered about the women the cowboys’ conveniently left behind to go off gallivanting. To me, it was like these women only existed in the world to give the hero something to fight for. I always wanted the story to stay in the farmhouse, to see what she got up to, how she struggled on through harsh winters and all that stuff. To me, the grind and the resolve needed just to survive was really compelling. I really enjoy writing strong female characters. They give me more surprises.

In a more general sense, isolation and the hallucinatory effects on the mind are always interesting – the subjective nature of time, the boundaries of reality and dream space. In the case of Maria & The Devil, I think the supernatural elements are more a projection of the central character’s inner landscape, neurosis and anxieties rather than ghosts and ghouls. The distances between towns, outposts and settlements in those times were vast – you really were on your own, especially when the winter came in. The time period just seemed to suit the themes and ideas I was batting around. The revenge aspect also fit in quite nicely. The distance between here and there, as I said, was vast so the geography of Montana is allegorical to the internal journey of setting out to do something (i.e. exact revenge) and actually doing it. It’s traversing the dangerous, doubt-filled and harsh in-between. Every character is under whatever personal stress and though they are bound to each other, and anchored in that world, they still have to traverse their internal landscape; they still have to overcome their own doubts/fears/anxieties…or even reconcile their hopes and dreams. The further the characters venture into the wilds, the deeper into themselves they travel, so to speak.

  • BB: Maria is a very strong character, despite all she goes through and the pressures of her environment. You present her as both fragile and unbreakable. Do you know anybody like her?

GT: I want my characters in all my books to seem real. They aren’t spawned into scenes at my will simply to advance the plot, or help the hero or dump some exposition on the reader. To me they truly exist and if I wanted to, I could easily go off and write a book about any one of them. They are all the central characters in their own lives, but they just happened in this instance to be cast in Maria & The Devil. As for knowing anybody like Maria that’s a “yes and no”. I mean, I love writing female characters – there is something about the strength and fragility in women that is really interesting. This constant struggle. To me, it’s fascinating and marvellous and while Maria is predominantly a fictional creation, I cannot deny that I have taken elements from someone I know…but the things I have taken, the things I am privileged to see beneath her surface are mine, and mine only. Sorry about that!

  • BB: You write in a wide range of genres and on a wide range of topics and themes. Is this a deliberate thing or simply a matter of how inspiration strikes?

GT: Very generally, if there is something I want to talk about, a theme to explore or an anxiety to work out then I’ll think about the best way in which to present it. But sometimes the inspiration strikes and I like to be receptive to that, however it may slap me. Sometimes I start with a title and go from there, sometimes it’s an ending. With Maria & The Devil, and this is totally true, the inspiration came in an instant. I was in Italy 3 years ago. I was staying with my girlfriend, in her little attic flat in the Bologna. It had been snowing heavily and in the middle of the night I got up to get a glass of water. Everything was that shade of blue that you only see in night scenes in the movies. I got my water and while I was drinking by the sink I thought “nobody knows I am here. It’s the middle of the night, I am in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land, naked and exposed”. At that point I imagined my girlfriend suddenly lurch around the doorway, screaming like a banshee and swinging an axe into my chest. The realisation of the solitude and isolation, in that foreign country, in the cold and far from home coupled with the utter vulnerability really struck me (no pun intended). Some things you remember. Some images stick. I went back to bed and by lunchtime the next day I had the broad strokes of the story down. Sometimes though, inspiration comes in a different way. It might be a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” or “that’s a good gag…” etc. But, going back to the start, once I have the bits and bobs I need, I will generally think about the best way of presenting it. As long as it’s fresh, new and something I haven’t done before then anything goes.

  • BB: What inspires you most?

GT: People who stand apart, and go their own way. People who seek to make a change. The people who say “no, this is not right.” This isn’t just politicians, or activists or artists.. I have friends who have pulled themselves out of toxic relationships, or who have overcome diseases. But it’s not just those sea-changing moments that inspire me. It can be the seemingly little things too. Nothing is trivial when it’s your life, when it’s happening to you so when my pals tell me “GT, this ain’t right,” or “GT, I’m gonna do this,” and they mean it, well then you can see it in their eyes; the life, the spark – that’s pretty inspiring.

Outside of that: Morrison, Cobain, Orbison, Grohl, Simone, MacGowan, Marquez, Bacon, Monet, Poe, Khan (Natasha) Rothko, Cocker, Adams (Ryan) Adams (Nicola) Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Jackson (Peter) and Daniel LaRusso. There are many more.

  • BB: Videos or books?

GT: At the risk of getting drummed out of the magic writer’s circle, I have to go with videos. I’ve watched movies all my life, started writing feature length screenplays at 16, had a crack at making some movies and I studied film at uni. It’s a language I am pretty comfortable with. Probably why my books are quite ‘filmic’ in their pace and brevity of scene (my editor just did an amazing spit-take at that notion). Anyway, all those movies and education have given me a good set of tools for creating stories pretty quickly. I kinda know how to build the structure from the off. I don’t really have to spend too much time thinking about the mechanics, and so can spend more time doing the fun stuff like developing, designing, world building etc.

  • BB: Where and how do you write?

GT: It’s a 70/30 split between pub and home. The 70/ in the pub, I deliberately eschew the wifi codes and just crack on. The drink and the din really help me to drift into whatever story I’m thrashing out. I love glancing up from my laptop and seeing the drinkers come and go, the dimming of the lights at 18:30 when the shift changes, the pub dog and the ancient locals. The smell and the noise, the noise and the smell: its home. As for the /30 writing is usually in the morning/early afternoon through 4 or 5 mugs of strong coffee with something familiar on in the background – usually a movie I’ve seen a billion times, or an album from my youth. Like the pub, the sound of the familiar film or music is a lullaby to me and it’s the shortest route to wherever I need to be. I write in fits and bursts, so when I am deep in production on a book, I’m not happy unless I can smash out 6-8000 words a day for about 6 days straight, then I’ll take a couple of days off to actually enjoy my life. Then I get antsy for being lazy and so I’ll crack on again. I’m usually also 3 books ahead of the one I’m writing and when I’m halfway through the production and it has come to The Hard Slog, I tell myself to keep going as the real reward is getting to start on the next one, which will lead to the next and so on. How can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat?

  • BB: What would be your desert island book?

GT: If I couldn’t get my mitts on a copy of an SAS Survival Handbook, then I would have to go for ‘100 Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s the most intoxicating book I’ve ever read, partly because I came across it at exactly the right time in exactly the right environment.

  • BB: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

GT: Well, one man’s cure is another man’s kill but here goes.

1. Know where you’re going – if you haven’t got an ending (even a vague one) then you’ll probably never get through the first draft.

2. Keep a lot of the in between unplanned – don’t be blasé about it, but leave some excitement and discovery for yourself. You should be creating and perceiving simultaneously. That makes it fun.

3. “Get in late, leave early” – my old screenwriting tutor at Uni taught me that. Words to live by in writing. If it’s a coffee shop scene – don’t start the scene with Trent Risk coming in, ordering a coffee and then meeting his contact Jake Dangerfield. Start the scene with them finishing their coffee. This brevity is lovely because you’re forced to compress the scene into just the few moments you are with the two characters. Be fast, be vital.

4. Complete no matter what – get to the end of the first draft and then go back. Don’t stop halfway and restart – you’ll end up in an ouroboros and never get out. Get to the end and keep track of all your new ideas and retrofits as you go along. Complete, have a pint, and start again. Not much feels better than completing. Read into that as you will.

5. Most important of all, just crack on, son

  • BB: We think that's sound advice, GT and thanks for chatting to us.

You can read more about Graham Thomas here.

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