Clive Barker: Trust Your Vision
(The following interview was originally conducted for Writer's Digest magazine in 1990, one of a half-dozen interviews I did with Barker between 1987 and 1995. At the time of this interview, Barker was still living in London and working on his epic fantasy novel IMAJICA. Previous to that, he'd published THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW, the first installment of his fantasy trilogy THE ART. His second film as a director, "Nightbreed," based on his novella CABAL, had been released earlier that year).
WALLACE STROBY: Your work is very much a fiction of ideas, images and metaphors. But you've been spending more time with character development with each novel. Nowadays when you're writing, do you first focus on the characters or the ideas?
The characters. Very much the characters. But bear in mind that six of the ten books I've written have been [collections of] short stories, and short stories rely upon a kind of character shorthand. Any digression in a short story, or any extension on a character note which is half a paragraph longer than it should be, is going to significantly slow down the machinery of the story. So in THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW, I allowed myself a lot more time to talk about the characters and their development and to spend some time with them when they were doing things which weren't strictly relevant to the plot.
But regarding characters, my feeling is this: Get [the reader] to accept one thing, one weirdness, and then the rest of it must follow realistically. I try not to lie about psychology. I don't think I'm mawkish in my writing, I don't think I'm overly sentimental. I try and be emotionally honest within a framework which has one thing askew.
So in WEAVEWORLD, the thing that's askew is the fact that out there is a world of magic hidden in that carpet. Once I've established that world of magic, the human response to it on the part of the characters must be emotionally true.
One of the reasons why I don't get on with most fantasy writing - enchanted sword fantasy writing - is because I think it's emotionally untrue. People behave in very simple ways, unparadoxical ways. What I'm trying to do is bring into fantasy - as I hope I've been able to bring to horror - a certain kind of emotional realism. People have mentioned sex as being a major part of my fiction. An awful lot of horror fiction simply never contained that kind of material. Which seems to me to be extraordinary because most horror fiction is about the body in some way or other, and therefore it should be about sensuality and eroticism every bit as much as it's about corruption.
So what I'm saying to the reader is: "Okay, accept and embrace this one thing - there's a magic carpet, there's a city of the dead, there's ... whatever." Thereafter I've got to be as honest as I possibly can about the processes that take these characters to this place, that involve them in that story. Because as a fiction writer, the last thing you want to be is a liar.
STROBY: When the story ideas begin to get very bizarre or complex, what can you do to make sure you don't lose that sort of emotional underpinning?
BARKER: The first thing is you've got to believe in the characters. You've got to be thinking with the characters and you've got to be within their skins. If you're within their skins then their response to any situation, however bizarre it is, is going to be based upon your sense of them. Any writer's belief in his or her characters - or the situations in which the characters find themselves - is central to his ability to convince the audience.
As a writer, you have to therefore always try to trip yourself up, look for the places where you've done something which was convenient rather than true. Convenient because sometimes characters can do things which are convenient to plotting, you know? But very often you realize "This character is not going to do that. This character is going to do X rather than Y." And sometimes that can be a pain in the ass, but it's worth the trouble if it's going to convince the reader of the truth of the situation.
The second thing is that I look for parallel situations. I don't know anybody who's visited a city of the dead; I don't know anybody who knows a world hidden in a carpet. But I do know of people who have secret lives. So I will look for parallel situations to those of which I'm writing.
STROBY: What exactly do you mean? Let's say in Lori's case in CABAL, how would you go about finding a parallel situation to that?
BARKER: Well, we've all fallen in love with the wrong people. We've all had forbidden thoughts go through our heads. We've all been drawn into situations which maybe some part of us resists. We've all felt the pull of the dark or the pull of the dangerous. That's an easy one in a way.
STROBY: I know you visited a prison before you wrote [the novella] "In the Flesh" and I know you've watched an autopsy. Do you think that kind of firsthand research is necessary to what you do, even though your work is so involved with the imagination?
BARKER: I think it's maybe more necessary because I'm involved with the imagination. It's very important to root your material, your fiction, in some kind of reality. The town of Palomo Grove from THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW exists. I won't name it to protect the guilty, but it exists and it's there in Ventura County. Obviously the world of Liverpool as I created it in WEAVEWORLD reflects a city I knew very well.
Solid research gives you a great place to move off from. It allows you a springboard, if you like, out into the fantastical. And also sometimes it throws up extraordinary things that you could never have guessed. Going to a prison for a couple of days gave me more insight than I could have imagined.
The danger of not doing research is that what you end up doing is using other people's work as the basis for the reality which you're creating. I think this has happened a lot in movies of late; many filmmakers are making movies not based upon their imaginations, but upon previous movies and previous imaginings.
It's wonderful to have inspiration from other artists and from the tradition in which you feel you're working. But it can really be dangerous if that's what's shaping your creativity, because what should be shaping it is the life which is being lived on the street outside.
You've got to get drunk and be in danger once in a while. You've got to fall in love, you've got to be hurt - this is an old story but it's exactly true. It's not just about prisons and it's not just about autopsies. It's about experiencing stuff. It's about writing out of your own pain, writing out of your own doubt, writing out of your own anger.
STROBY: When you're dealing with books like WEAVEWORLD and THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW - very big, very ambitious books - have you ever had to scale back an idea or a plot line because you thought the characters were getting dwarfed by it?
BARKER: Not really. I think sometimes I took risks that, when I look back on them, I wonder how I had the [courage] to take. Three quarters of the way through WEAVEWORLD, an angel makes its presence known. When I look back I think: "Boy, that's really playing with fire, isn't it?" Because, you know, an angel steps onto the stage and it's perfectly possible that the blaze simply blinds the audience to everything else that's going on. There is a danger of that. I think, for a certain kind of reader, the divine intervention probably is a turn-off. For me, it's a point of new excitement and new departure.
Part of the pleasure of writing is taking risks Part of the pleasure of it is doing something which makes you think: "Boy, am I going to pull this one off?" The fact is, you never know.
In THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW, the scale of the idea is, in a sense, even bigger. At one point halfway through the novel [a character] remarks that all world religion is a cover-up for the secret which we are now about to have revealed to us. This is metaphysical arrogance of the first order, I think. (Laughs.)
STROBY: So at that stage of those two books, when you reached that point and you were perhaps having second thoughts, did you do anything to bring it down to earth a little more?
BARKER: No, I think you have to have courage. You've got to have the arrogance, if you like, to say: "Okay, I'm going to go with this, and I'm going to tell it the way my imagination sees it." I don't think there's any other way of making those things work. I think the most terrible thing at that point would be a failure of courage, because that would play completely against what you're trying to achieve.
STROBY: Working on a novel that size, is there a danger of getting half-way through and thinking "Why am I spending all this time on this? Is this idea worth the time and the emotion and everything else I'm putting into it?"
BARKER: Absolutely. I think one of the best things that happened in my career was that I had the bad sense - in terms of commercial propositions, but good sense, I think, aesthetically - to begin with short fiction. If I'd had an agent before I'd started writing, my agent would have told me: "Don't begin with short fiction, because nobody buys it."
In fact, [writing short fiction] was good for me, because I realized you could actually put a lot of material in 30 pages. And if you're going to write 700 pages, they better be full. You better have an idea which is going to justify that length, justly the audience reading the thing for that long.
So what I tried to do with WEAVEWORLD was say, "If I'm going to fill 700 pages, I don't want it to become a trudge for the reader." I wanted there to be lots of short, sharp, clear experiences and each chapter would announce the nature of its experience with a title.
I want a novel to be like getting a box of really great chocolates and you just have to go on to the next one and each one is different. I think that too many books have a kind of creative poverty about them. I want the reader to be able to go back to [my books] and find fresh stuff there, fresh associations, fresh puns. The pleasure principle has got to be high in these kinds of things. Seven hundred pages is a lot of reading.
STROBY: Your first published work was short fiction. For awhile your only published work was short fiction. Would you recommend short stories as a good place to start for people who want to write imaginative fiction?
BARKER: It worked for me. It allowed me to clear the decks of ideas which seemed to work for that length, and to start to study the larger scale stuff later on.
Short fiction worked for me, but clearly novels have worked better for other people. It depends on the idea the individual's got. Short fiction is a great place to start because you have the satisfaction of finishing three weeks later. The problem with the large novel is that you've got to pace yourself, knowing that you're not going to have the satisfaction of concluding it for longer than it would take to produce a baby.
But the fact is whatever forces the person to get the pen in hand and fill a page with prose is what's important. If a short story is what makes that process easiest in the first instance, then a short story is clearly the thing to do. I don't think there are any hard and fast rules, I honestly don't.
STROBY: You've said in the past that moments from books, moments from movies - even moments from paintings - sometimes find their way into your work. Do you think it's important for fiction writers to have that sort of cross-media fertilization?
BARKER: Well, for lots of people it's obviously completely irrelevant. It's whatever works for you. I feel as though I am writing a kind of fiction which relates to a whole texture of imagery which appears in painting and poetry and mythology and folklore. I wanted there to be in WEAVEWORLD, for instance, echoes of Peter Pan, of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, of the Book of Genesis, of William Blake.
I don't want my work to be the literary equivalent of a movie brat quoting films. I'm not interested in pastiche. I'm trying to find my own route through to a kind of fiction which is at a crossroads of several other kinds of fiction - science fiction, fantasy, horror, fairy tale fiction, visionary fiction, mystical fiction.
STROBY: What would you say to writers who are inclined to the same sort of hybrid material but are worried about marketing their work?
BARKER:I think whatever is going to turn out your best prose is what you should be doing. I'm not the only one who had that sort of [cross-genre] success. William Gibson had a similar sort of success with cyberpunk and bringing elements of film noir to the idea of the science fiction novel. So I feel there are definitely editors who are listening to hear original voices.
I think it's very important that you try to be original, that you don't simply follow in the tracks of someone else. For one thing, I think there's a real danger that you'll end up in pastiche. And I've seen some pastiche Clive Barker including a couple of short stories that made me think: "Boy, this guy can really write. Why doesn't he just go and do his thing?" I think it's dangerous. I mean, we've seen lots of pastiche Stephen King, and nobody's ever going to do it as well as Steve.
It's better to just get on and do whatever you need to do. Now if that turns out to be fantasy, if that turns out to be science fiction with a little bit of horror in it, or erotic fiction with a little bit of gunrunning... I mean, whatever works, really. I think one can't be bound by categories. You've got to just go out and do whatever makes sense to your imagination. You've got to have the strength of your vision, you've got to have the truth of your vision. Otherwise it'll be hack work.
STROBY: Do you read a lot of other stuff in the genre?
BARKER: Sure. sure, absolutely. For one thing, I don't want to be reinventing the wheel. I want to know what other people are doing. But it's no more than 10% of what I read. Overwhelmingly, the bulk of what I read is nonfiction.
Let me just pick up the books that are around my desk at the moment. I've got one on torture in Brazil. I've got a book called "Healing the Wounded Man: Why Men Run From Relationships," which is relevant to one of the characters I'm writing about. I've got "The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained." I've got "Blood Secrets: The True Story of Demon Worship and Ceremonial Murder." I have "Paradigms Lost: Images of Man in the Mirror of Science" - extraordinary book, by the way - by John Casti. I've got a book on psychedelic experiences. A book on Vincente Minnelli, the movie director. A book called "Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs." A book on Tarot. A book on memories and visions of Paradise. A book on rose windows in cathedrals around the world.
There isn't a single fictional book anywhere around me. They're all books which are related not necessarily even to the major themes of the book at hand, but relevant in some oblique way.
STROBY: When it comes to fiction, do you think it's possible to read too much of other people's work?
BARKER: Yeah, I think it's very possible. For one thing, writing is about having your own voice, refining your own voice, celebrating your own voice.
Writers write. That may be an obvious thing to say but [it's true]. There's no such thing as a potential writer, there's only somebody who is doing the thing. It's like saying you're a potential boat builder. No, you're a boat builder when you're building a boat.
We're seduced early on by the notion that everybody's got a novel in them and so on and so forth. And that is very probably true. But the fact is that the only way to be certain of whether there's a novel inside you is to sit down with a pen in your hand one day and start to do it.
If you want to write badly enough, then you're going to be doing it, you're not going to be talking about it. And nothing I can say is going to take you the first step. Something I tell you might help you to sophisticate your second draft, but nothing I say is going to help you get the pen in your hand and the piece of paper in front of you for four or five hours a day. You either have the hunger to do that, or you don't, and I'm not going to be able to make it easier for you.
STROBY: The first 50 pages of THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW are packed with ideas. Obviously when things are going well, the ideas are flying fast and furious. How do you keep track of them?
BARKER: For IMAJICA, I have in front of me a file which is two inches deep, which are my notes on the book. A lot of these are dream images, things I've awoken in the night with. Some of them are on pieces of paper collected from all kinds of places: yellow legal pads, note paper snatched from hotels, anything. It's just a collection of things. I've also got some post cards, reproductions of paintings, things which I find inspiring in certain places.
But I also have a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book. So when I'm on Chapter 11, I have the notes in front of me for Chapter 11.
STROBY: What about ideas that maybe unrelated to the book at hand?
BARKER: To the left and right of me are shelves groaning under piles of notes and ideas and pieces of paper filled with stuff. The floor is littered with the same thing.
STROBY: How do you know when an idea is ready to be used?
BARKER: I don't know why one knows, but one knows. To some extent I think it's a question of courage. It took me a long time to get the courage up to tell the story of THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW, even though I'd wanted to tell it for a long time, simply because I didn't think I was the equal of telling such a complicated story. The basic idea for IMAJICA has been around for a very long time, but it's a very complicated story and again, I didn't feel like I was ready until now.
I know when an idea has reached critical mass. I know when I want to deal with it. I toy with ideas, maybe even for months, before I'm certain of the one that I want. With a novel, I am aware that I'm going to need to have a love affair with this idea which is going to last a year. Once I'm committed to an idea, I'm obsessed by it. I'm dreaming about it, I'm thinking about it all the time.
STROBY: Do you have any unfinished works, either stories or novels, that didn't pan out?
BARKER: No. I have a couple of short stories from the early BOOKS OF BLOOD which I finished but didn't ever get into a second draft. I got to a first draft and then I came up with an idea which I preferred. But they're in a very rough-and-ready state. So, no, I get things finished and turn them in pretty much.
STROBY: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started to write fiction?
BARKER: To have faith in my imagination. To not care that this wasn't "reality." Britain has a long and honorable tradition of naturalism in TV, plays, movies. The imaginative tradition - though it's extremely strong in these islands - is nevertheless disparaged a lot of the time, overlooked critically.
This is the country that gave us Bram Stoker, C. S. Lewis, J.M. Barrie, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, the list goes on. Science fiction, horror fiction, fantasy fiction - I read those books as forbidden pleasures, never was taught them in school, never heard them celebrated from the mouths of the educators whom I admired. So it took me three or four years after I started writing to get past the fact that this was a forbidden form - not even forbidden, that gives it too much mystique, but just a disparaged fiction - to realize that this was where my strength lay and that these forms of fiction could be extraordinarily vital and rich. And I wish to God someone had said that to me.
As it was, I had to find my way to that realization myself, and in a sense maybe that's not so terrible. Fighting your way to that kind of realization makes you strong.
Copyright 2005 - Wallace Stroby - All Rights Reserved