Paul Meloy: Eight Questions
Paul Meloy is a writer with a long history with TTA Press, debuting in The Third Alternative #14 with The Last Great Paladin of Idle Conceit. The magazine Black Static, the successor to The Third Alternative, took its name from another Meloy story and in 2008 TTA Press published a critically acclaimed collection of Paul's work, Islington Crocodiles.
To read a Meloy story, is to dive headfirst into a universe where characters like Nurse Melt and Jack Feculent run wild, where Firmament Surgeons and Autoscopes battle for supremacy, where pandas eat the garden furniture and the spirit of Lenny Bruce tells you the only sin is despair. It is a unique and unforgettable experience.
Black Static the story won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2005, and 2009 finds Paul in contention again, with two stories on the short list for Best Short Fiction and Islington Crocodiles up for Best Collection. I took the opportunity to talk to Paul about his work in general and these nominations in particular.
PT: Hi Paul. Now you're in the possibly envious position of having two stories in contention for the Best Short Fiction Award, All Mouth from Black Static #6 and The Vague from the collection Islington Crocodiles, so I thought I'd put you on the spot with the very first question and ask which of the two is your personal favourite and why?
PM: Hi Pete. If pushed, I suppose I'd have to say All Mouth is my favourite. It's deliberately vulgar and that's a lot more fun to write if I'm in a particular frame of mind. It's got some quite risky and extreme descriptions, and examples of dialogue which made me push my own boundaries. It also got a great response when I read it at Fantasycon last year - a few laughs, a few gasps - which made me bond with it and regard it with affection.
PT: All right, for your second question, could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind each of the nominated stories?
PM: Back in the late eighties a friend of mine rented a room in a house in Streatham. It was pretty much as I described it in All Mouth, complete with menacing and mysterious occupants. I remember when my mate first moved in, I went round to see him and he was busy reinforcing the door to his room with locks and chains, wide eyed with terror. He didn't stay there long. When I got the idea for All Mouth, with the monstrous personification of Jase's self-inflated ego, it seemed perfect to set it there. The Vague is a lot gentler, and probably a bit deeper, and was a continuation of the stories I've been working on set in Quay-Endula. One day I just got this picture in my head of a cottage garden studded with sharpened silver cutlery and the story took off from there.
PT: When I compare All Mouth and The Vague, it seems to me that the former is a minimalist, self-contained work, whereas the latter has a much wider scope, and there is a lot more going on, both in the story itself and in the way it ties in with the rest of your work. In your own reading preferences, which kind of writing do you prefer, widescreen or something more intimate?
PM: A bit of both. Again, it depends on my state of mind, mood or disposition. It's interesting that All Mouth and The Vague seem to represent the two very different types of stories I write at their most extreme polarity. It's either dark, coarse and a bit loutish, or it's gentle, reflective and more lyrical. I have this duality going through my whole life. I hope the language makes them both recognisably mine, but it's fun being able to approach writing as if I'm two different people. So, I love writing that shows off, that explodes in your face like Martin Amis, Graham Joyce, Harlan Ellison, Bruno Schultz, John Kennedy-Toole, Jonathan Carroll and I love elegant, disciplined stuff like Ballard, Dan Simmons, Chaz Brenchley, David Baldacci, John Connolly.
PT: In many ways your work reminds me of Clive Barker, especially his earlier books. There's the same feel of a sleazy undercurrent, the same remorseless and grotesque invention, the same sense of some great metaphysics lurking back of it all. Would you count Barker as an influence and, assuming you're familiar with him (if you're not, this question is going to have a really short answer), how do you feel about Barker's work and his contribution to genre?
PM: I remember being very excited by Barker when I first read his Books of Blood and The Damnation Game. Some of his stories and set pieces were genuinely disturbing in the same way Ramsey Campbell's early stories hooked me. There was nothing pedestrian about the writing. There was a deliberate lushness and a conscious and premeditated attempt to upset and disconcert that was missing from a lot of contemporary writing at the time. He really stood out. Also, he was British, which gave him credibility. Later his stuff became a bit camp and I stopped reading him when Galilee came out. But that's a matter of taste for me. He's still an awesome writer with an enviable stack of talents and an ability to generate a fabulous mythology.
PT: One thing that has always impressed me (and everyone else, as far as I can tell) about your work is the language. It seems that each story is studded with all these wonderful and baroque phrases, that are both alarmingly original and yet totally apt. A couple of examples:-
From The Vague - 'What noise would a shark make if a shark could scream? It would be a terrible, mindless sound, unfathomable, like base metal coming alive, like oceans shattering.'
From All Mouth - 'vaginas appearing like ventricles in his mind, like the mouths of red-throated carp coming up to feed'
In his Foreword to Islington Crocodiles Graham Joyce talks about 'electrifying lyrical poise (that just seems to come easy to him)', but I'm guessing that's far from the case. Would you consider your writing voice, style, whatever you call it, as something that comes naturally to you, or does it require a lot of hard work, many drafts etc? Do you talk and/or think as you write?
PM: It's not easy, but it does seem natural. I only ever do one draft but everything is read through time and again until I'm happy with it. I can spend all day on a couple of paragraphs, juggling and chipping away. I seem to know when it's right enough for me. I'd love to be able to cane a few thousand words off in a morning, set myself a target of a couple of novels a year, but it's so completely unlikely as to be even beyond dreaming about. I just don't function that way. I hold these paragraphs like some idiot peering at a fistful of clay, squeezing, poking, easing some kind of shape out of them. It's not a very electrifying process!
PT: Aside from Lesley Morning in Black Static (the Paul Meloy story, and not the magazine) I don't recall you using any female protagonists. Is writing from a female point of view something you find difficult, or has it simply never been an issue?
PM: I loved writing about Lesley, and I'm writing about her again in my new novella, Dogs With Their Eyes Shut. I've also got another story started with a female protagonist. It's Chloe's (Steve and Claire's daughter from Islington Crocodiles) story about her fight with the Autoscopes after she went through the gantry at the end of Crocs. I probably do find it easier writing about males, but I wouldn't shy away from using a female protagonist if the story or plot demanded it.
PT: In the triumvirate of plot, characterisation and language, which do you consider the most important?
PM: Language; plot and characterisation can then be illuminated by it.
PT: Many, if not most of your characters, like Bridgeman in All Mouth are down on their luck, sometimes emotionally stunted individuals, and often, though not always, your stories offer them a shot at some form of redemption. What is it about such characters that you find appealing, as opposed to some more overtly heroic individual?
PM: I've been down on my luck and emotionally stunted. I've been craven, dishonourable and a bit of a cunt. But I accept the possibility of forgiveness and redemption and strive to become a man of honour, dignity and compassion. So my chaps are all bits of me. I don't find anything interesting or compelling in writing about heroic characters; I'd always want to fuck them up, or humiliate them in some way. Wankers.
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