Derrick Ferguson: Who is John Linwood Grant?
John Linwood Grant: I’m an old soul, which isn’t a spiritual statement – I only started submitting short stories at the age of 58. My timing may have been a little off, as I suppose I should have tried this slightly earlier. I’m large, bearded, covered in discarded dog hair, and pretty easy going. I grew up next to sheer chalk cliffs and the cold North Sea, and although I have traveled around Europe and North Africa, I’ve basically lived in Yorkshire all my life; I’m rooted to this Northern land of ours. I currently live on the edge of Yorkshire Dales, with dogs – and occasionally a family.
DF: Where do you live and what do you do to keep the bill collectors away?
JLG: I would like to say that the dogs keep the bill collectors away, but unfortunately, they’re far too friendly. So, I survive through a complicated blend of writing/editing income and various small annuities (I have agoraphobia and a panic disorder, which I presume I was given to add some excitement to my life).
DF: What’s your philosophy of writing? Do you even have a philosophy of writing?
JLG: I’m not sure I do – or if I have one, it’s too deeply buried for shallow minds like mine. Maybe I’m trying to present, and empathize with, different aspects of humanity, in its various glories and failings. People are The Thing, and I’m old enough to have met a lot of people. I suppose you might call my writing humanist – some of it I produce to ask questions about ourselves. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, and believe in exploring purpose and redemption – but let’s face it, other stories are only there to entertain.
DF: What keeps you motivated to write?
JLG: The cost of dog food, and a lack of Impostor Syndrome. I write reasonably well, which is the sort of thing you’re probably not supposed to say, and I enjoy doing it. There are always days when I can’t quite grasp what I’m trying to convey, but there’s always something else at the back of my mind which makes me think, “Hey, that would make a great story.” Usually seven or eight somethings at once. Occasionally I accept that it’s not a topic or theme I myself should be writing. Maybe I don’t have enough insight there; maybe there are other writers who are better placed to express the concepts. I hang back on some ideas, and go full steam on others. If I was sitting in an ancient market square, I would just make up stories for anyone who wanted to hear them.
DF: How would you describe your style of writing?
JLG: I suspect I write weird fiction which isn’t quite fancy enough to be in vogue; horror fiction which isn’t gross enough for horror fans, and adventure which isn’t wild enough for many of the pulp fans. You could say my writing is very character-based, often with limited descriptive elements – I try to capture the ‘feel’ of people and situations at a glance. The tilt of a hat on someone’s head is more important than listing the hat’s material, size, manufacturer and all that stuff.
I love strong imagery and use of language – and playing with those- but don’t go for the unnecessarily thesaurus-hugging nature of some ‘literary’ fiction. The well-placed short word is usually better than the uncommon archaism you have to look up. Oh, and I love pithy and unexpected dialogue. And semi-colons.
DF: Have you found an audience yet? if so, how did you do it? If not, why haven’t you?
JLG: I’ve found several audiences, which reflects my utter failure to plough ahead in only one genre. I reached a lot of people by the simple ploy of putting two or three short stories up on Smashwords for free, and then using them as teasers and seed-fiction. They gave a hint of my style, what people might expect of me, and went down well. After that I went straight for paying markets, being a Yorkshireman. I also started greydogtales.com, a website which was theoretically a promotional platform, but which filled up with nonsense, articles on weird, horror and detective fiction, and lots about dogs. I got bored of talking about me and my work, and just went mad on it, which is probably why the site’s so popular.
My online series “Lurchers for Beginners”, which I did because I love lurchers, became a huge hit entirely by accident (if it helps, a lurcher is a British thing, a very fast dog which is a deliberate cross between a sighthound and a working dog, with a long history over here). It’s fun – and occasionally informative – stuff about the dogs. Much to my surprise, some of the dog people also bought my books, and they’ve been great supporters. To make a site work for you, it either has to be a useful resource or a work of genuine enthusiasm. Greydogtales is both – on a good day.
I also have, inexplicably, a lot of fans who just follow the folklorish Weird Wolds stuff, two thirds of which is based around a mad village called St Botolph-in-the-Wolds. I describe it as Enid Blyton meets H P Lovecraft, with a lot of added very British Girls’ Own fun – Mr Bubbles, the slightly psychotic pony who fights evil; J Linseed Grant, the miserly writer, and a troop of feral Girl Guides who go on metal polish and lemonade fueled rampages. I even got a mention from Ellen Datlow for one of the more serious Weird Wolds stories, which was unexpected.
DF: You definitely have a love for Horror, Weird Fiction, Dark Fantasy, Gothic Horror and related genres. Where does that love come from?
JLG: I grew up in a large converted farmhouse full of ominous furniture, in a village too small to have a church or a pub. I was an avid and precocious reader. I devoured books by Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, William Hope Hodgson, Conan Doyle, H P Lovecraft, Saki, and loads of other writers from an early age, and just loved it all. I also wolfed down every EC comic I could find, and the darker folklore stories. I think it all embedded itself, whether I wanted it to or not. I’m not a great one for hack’n’slash horror – I prefer the ominous intrusion of the strange into the real – that shadow in the wrong place on the wall, the woman who says something you don’t understand when you buy the morning paper. Minutiae which form a whole.
DF: What do you say are the main differences in how Brits and American writers view Horror/Weird Fiction?
JLG: Nowadays, I’m not so sure. The lines are blurred. I find it interesting that one of the big yearly events in Britland is Fantasycon, which is in fact a pleasing blend of fantasy and weird/horror fiction enthusiasts. I sometimes get the feeling that Americans see horror as a more specific field, whilst weird is a niche, quite literary zone (in the best sense), and fantasy is something else altogether. The UK can have a wry, nuanced style which I don’t think always travels well, but when it does, it makes a real mark. I’m probably not a good person to ask, because almost all of my work has been published from North America, not Britland. I have no idea why. Maybe Statesiders find my work ‘quaint’ or ‘different’ which is fine if it sells books. Those dog bowls, as I’ve said, don’t fill themselves.
DF: Tell us about OCCULT DETECTIVES QUARTERLY
JLG: We would need a small novel to cover that one. The late Sam Gafford and I co-founded the magazine in 2016, as a mad venture covering the sort of stories we liked, and pretty much everything has gone wrong along the way, though every issue has been well received. It’s again a niche market, hugely popular with its fans and woefully unnoticed by the larger world. The magazine is also not exactly pulp, not necessarily high literature, not quite pure horror, and yet we take all of those if the story’s strong. So you might find a good old-fashioned supernatural mystery right next to a piece of powerful weird fiction, followed by a rip-roaring occult adventure. There must be a mystery, and there must be someone who looks into it, whether that be out of choice, role, or dread circumstance. The lead character might be a world-weary PI, a disturbed young onlooker, a bemused cop, a dubious mystic, an occult expert, or an amateur sleuth – any of those and more.
We’ve been blessed with some very loyal fans, as I say, and some great artists and writers, who have been hugely supportive despite every disaster (our first publisher folded, and then Sam died, for starters). We’re relaunching it this Autumn/Winter from the UK as OCCULT DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, which is still ODQ in all but name and will be our sixth issue – ‘Quarterly’ sounded ambitious, though you never know. Dave Brzeski, a Brit editor and enthusiast who was a vital part of ODQ, is my co-conspirator in keeping the tradition going.
DF: You edit and you write. Which one is harder?
JLG: I find editing interesting but exhausting. Every so often it does bring great pleasure – an exciting project; a completely new writer discovered; a fabulous take on a theme. I prefer Open Calls, to seek out a diversity of contributors and give opportunities to fresh voices, but those do add to the workload. “Hell’s Empire” the anthology I completed earlier this year, was a surprising joy, because the writers were so inventive and co-operative. It’s a terrific and unusual book, though I say it myself.
I’m a writer first, and so it can be hard to be an editor – I see potential in so many stories that aren’t really market-ready, and I often want to do something to help get them across the finishing line. There isn’t usually the time, unfortunately.
Writing itself, on the other hand, is what I do, and there’s a good feeling which comes from every story I finish to my own satisfaction, whether or not anyone else wants it.
DF: Tell us about your upcoming projects. What should be looking for from you?
JLG: I’m pushed in a lot of directions. At the moment I’m finishing edits on a two-volume anthology for Belanger Books – “Sherlock Holmes and the Occult Detectives”. I’m tempted to try another project with my very talented friend writer and artist Alan M Clark – we’ve worked very closely over the last couple of years, and combined two separate novels of ours into the interleaved novel “13 Miller’s Court”, concerning the last recorded victim of Jack the Ripper. It’s not necessarily the take you’d expect, and is very much about the impact on the lives of the woman involved, with little interest in the murderer himself. It also involves Mr Edwin Dry, the lethal Deptford Assassin, who has gained a lot of followers in his own right.
I have an almost finished Tales of the Last Edwardian novel kicking around – murder, madness and the supernatural in the early 1900s. Then a collection of my directly weird fiction is doing the rounds (I might just publish it myself if I get bored). I ought to put out a collection of my 1920s Mamma Lucy hoodoo tales, and maybe a full book of St Botolph’s stuff, which people nag me for. I’ll no doubt write some more Holmes stories, and I want to add to my weird portfolio. It all sounds too complicated and like hard work when I say it.
DF: What is the one novel or story that you would recommend to someone who doesn’t know a thing about you or your work that they should start with?
JLG: If you like strange, cosmic horror type stuff, then “Messages” in Cthulhusattva, from Martian Migraine. If you prefer disquieting contemporary fiction, then “Records of the Dead”, in the recent Haverhill anthology ‘The Twisted Book of Shadows’. My collection “A Persistence of Geraniums and Other Worrying Tales”, from IFD Publishing, is probably the best introduction to my general style, though, and it introduces a number of recurring characters.
DF: Drop some Words of Wisdom on all the aspiring young writers reading this who are thirsting for your knowledge.
JLG: Ha-ha. Perhaps the thing I notice most is that a lot of submitted work simply isn’t ready for consumption, as I mentioned earlier. You can’t see it, and your friends won’t tell you. Develop the ability to sit outside yourself, and read everything you produce as if someone else did it. Read other books and stories a lot, and compare your work to what you read – on the broadest level. Not “Is mine as good as that one by so and so?” but “Is mine actually good enough for the marketplace?” That may sound harsh, but it’s useful. Read outside your own genre to observe craft in action.
Much of what you write will be too long, whether it’s a short story or a novel. Writers indulge themselves. They fall in love with their own ideas, and the pleasure of words and phrases, but some of those just don’t need to be there. I have a terrible habit of drifting into the lives of secondary and tertiary characters, which fascinates me, but sometimes the readers don’t care. They want the story. There are exceptions where the style of delivery is as important as what the story tells, but trimming is frequently in order.
Also, assume lots of things will go wrong in your search to get published. If you start out that way, you get hurt less. Agents will have too much on to give you attention, even if you genuinely deserve it. Editors will not get what you were trying to achieve, or won’t be able to find a slot for you because of other factors. Publishers will merge, go bust, or realize that however much they love your work, their Marketing Department can’t see a way of making money out of you. You will get screwed over on at least one contract, at some point. Once you know these things, they become less personal, and just part of the way things are for many thousands of other writers.
These really apply, of course, if you are deliberately writing to sell and be read by others. I have no beef with those who write purely to express themselves, to get something from their head out onto paper (or screen). You can always write only for yourself, and let the rest of the world do its own thing.
DF: What’s a typical Day In The Life of John Linwood Grant like?
JLG: Extremely badly planned, and constantly interrupted by two large lurchers (the dogs). I spend a lot of time mending the awful plumbing in our house and trying to keep the dogs out of the fridge. In between, I write.
Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we should know?
John Linwood Grant: Nothing I’ve said is necessarily true. I make stuff up for a living.