South China Morning Post Interview - October 10 2004
By Martin Newman
He's the no-nonsense author of dozens of thrillers and horror novels, and one of Britain's top genre writers.
With several bestsellers to his name, including Slugs, Relics and Spawn, Shaun Hutson appears to be going from strength to strength. But while it may be a labour of love for Hutson, the love is as much in the labour as anything else. At the age of 45 he has written 25 novels under his own name and another 27 under pseudonyms. He once wrote a 45,000-word Cossack adventure in five days.
This type of thing goes on everywhere in the publishing business and if the avid Liverpool football fan was churning out rubbish it would not seem an earth-shattering statistic. But Hutson also happens to be a good writer.
'Altogether I have had 52 novels published,' he told me. 'I did 11 Second World War novels from the German point of view as Wolf Kruger. I did a couple of Cossack novels as Stefan Rostov. I did UFO books that were supposed to be non-fiction (he coughs into his hand), as Frank Taylor.' The list goes on.'
'My first publishers were really cheap, for want of a better word, but it was great,' he added. 'The work just used to pour in. I would literally get a phone call saying 'Shaun we need a book about a nutter with a chainsaw'. I'd say 'when do you want it? Two weeks?'
'They used to give me longer than I needed. Chainsaw Terror was done in 15 days, that's 60,000 to 70,000 words. Sabres in the Snow (he lowers his voice conspiratorially) was done in five days.'
When Hutson started writing, aged 23, he had worked a string of small-time jobs (cinema usher, shelf stacker and barman) before coming across a novel he described as so 'fucking awful' he decided he could do better. He was living in poverty in the small town of Letchworth in Hertfordshire, England, with his long-term girlfriend, later wife, Belinda.
'At the time it was desperation,' he said. 'We were living in a flat over a billiard hall. We had no heating.'
'It sounds like a hard-luck story, but in the morning my writing room was so cold I had to have a blanket around me and a hot water bottle on my feet. I had to wear fingerless gloves and wipe the paper mites off the manuscript every day. The incentive was 'God let's get out of here'. So it wasn't that difficult to write six books in a year. Which I did one year.'
'Literally I would get a phone call, saying 'Oh, we think westerns are coming back'. I did three westerns under the name Samuel P. Bishop. It just used to come very easily.'
'I don't know how writers labour over their work. This one (he gestures to his latest book Necessary Evil) took longer than usual because the agent I have made me rewrite passages two or three times, which is unheard of for me. I've got chapter-by-chapter notes, I've got my synopsis, I've got my cast list. I'm not one of these authors that says 'by chapter four the characters had taken on a life of their own'. Bollocks. I know exactly what's happening from beginning to end, and you just need to churn away. The speed with which I work, I like to think, transmits itself to the printed page. Gives it a sense of dynamism.'
Time Warner's London offices are almost on Waterloo Bridge, the footpath barricaded against a fast flow of traffic. When I got there just before lunch it was quiet, almost deserted. The rabbit warren of desks and crammed together flat-pack cubicles belied the term open-plan altogether. I found Shaun in a small conference room at the far end of the corridor talking to a guy, one of the staff who works a grunt job at the unglamorous, business end of the industry. He was clearly a fan and had his signed copy of Necessary Evil under his arm, shaking hands and all smiles, as I walked in. Hutson, who likes guns, has a reputation for being a bit solitary and disinclined to company, but actually he just likes to steer clear of the literary establishment. I get the impression it's an image he cultivates himself, but it's hard to know why as he's about as personable and good-willed a fellow as you could meet.
'I'm in the business, as far as I'm concerned, of entertaining people,' he explained, quite defensively. 'I think that's one of the things that has earnt me the contempt of a lot of other authors - that I won't have it that what we do for a living is anything other than a job.'
'I've been accused of, among other things, dragging horror into the gutter. Someone said 'all horror writers are normal except Shaun Hutson'. It's like what is the problem? You do what you do, I do what I do. Try getting a life and then it won't bother you.'
'But the root of it is my determination to never look at this as anything other than a very wonderful job. I'm not biting the hand that feeds me, but it is first and foremost a job. Maybe that's because, especially at the beginning, I was working strict hours that I set myself. And that mentality has stayed with me.'
'I'm not interested in going to literary lunches. It's more use to me to spend time with wholesalers and book buyers than with editors or other authors, talking about upcoming projects. That's not going to help me pay my mortgage. But having lunch with a big wholesaler and him turning to you and saying 'well we're going to buy an extra 20,000 copies of the paperback' then that is going to help. A lot of authors don't leave London to do promotional work. The first call I did was Radio Northampton - four listeners and a sheep - but I do that because you know eventually it's going to help. That's not hard work. Which is another complaint that really irritates me.'
'How hard is it to get in a chauffeur-driven car, get out and talk about yourself for 10 minutes? How difficult is that for Christ's sake? It's the nearest I get to a holiday every year.'
'I just think there's a very precious side to literature. There is in any business. But there's a side of it where you've got to be this distant, incredibly well read author, with a copy of Jane Austen in your back pocket, and I can't do that. And I think people respond to that.'
Hutson is a lot of fun. He's full of self-deprecating humour and quick analyses and is a fan of legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah and cult comedian Bill Hicks. He never reads, but draws inspiration from cinema. In fact he thinks cinematically, running his stories through his head and relating them as though they were projected onto a screen. His books are strong on dialogue and he expresses many of his thoughts or recounts detail in this way. His conversation is peppered with hearsay exchanges or imagined reactions to illustrate a point. Among his fans he numbers rock group Iron Maiden and has appeared on stage with them no less than 15 times. Another reader, the indie filmmaker Johannes Roberts has cast him in a new horror movie.
'I spent most of yesterday afternoon in a cast, having me face made and covered in rubber for a film called the Forsaken Forest,' he said. 'The director's made four films that have sunk without trace, but rang my agent and said 'if he wants to, he can be decapitated'. Before that I get torn to shreds by eight naked fallen angels.'
'I said 'yeah sure, great, it's an afternoon'.'
It's clear that he has plenty to keep him occupied. Hutson traced his fascination with horror back to his childhood, when his parents would sneak him into mature horror films at the local cinema. He recalls hiding under the seat at double bills of The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now, and of sitting up on a Friday night watching The Avengers on an old black and white television. Recalling these seminal experiences with a shiver he recounted: 'I've only had two nightmares in my life and one of those was when I was five and my mum took me to see the old Hammer remake of Phantom of the Opera. There was a support film called Night Creatures, which was about smugglers frightening off the locals by dressing up as skeletons. That scared the shit out of me and that night I had a nightmare. I think back and wonder if that was the turning point when I became obsessed with the darker, scary side.
'So I always blame my mum really. The horror thing and women I don't find strange. A lot of people say 'well they're boys' books aren't they'. And it's like 'well no', because 65 per cent of the mail that comes into me is from women.'
'I would like to think a lot of the reason is the central women characters are not just cannon fodder. The one thing I've always hated about horror films is the trivial roles given to women. Most horror films haven't got any style if you compare them to the old Hammer films. That just seems to have gone.'
'Horror to a degree is in the eye of the beholder. The horrific parts of my book are the Middle Eastern terrorists on the loose in London. There may well be Middle Eastern terrorists on the loose in London. Every single book I've ever written has been based in reality, something I heard on the news or a tiny cutting I've spotted in the paper. It's just a matter of 'what if'. How much farther can I push this idea?'
'If you've got something real that a reader can latch on to, it makes the horror more in their face - rather than something crawling up through the toilet or hanging around in the attic. It's easier for me to get somebody's character across in dialogue and action, than constructing characters in a beautiful literary sense. Because I can't do that.'
I get the impression Hutson is proud of the achievement of writing. Not about receiving recognition. For he is quite happy to be anonymous. It's more the act of creating, the validation of having the finished article in his hand. If anything that sense of pride is combining with the other thing in his life that he is very proud of, his nine-year-old daughter.
Approached to write a children's horror story he is looking forward to her finally being able to read one of his books. 'I had an idea about a year ago that I wanted to write for kids,' he said. 'I think because I'd always read to her, right from the time she was a baby.'
'I can't wait till it sits on her bookshelf. I mean it won't be under my name, but she'll know it's me.'
'So I'm really proud of that. I think kids are more able to distance themselves from the nastiness. Single parent families seem more sort of pertinent as far as frightening children goes. What is scarier than the thought of a pair of trainers that are going to haunt them forever and take over their feet or something, is the fear they might lose one of their parents.'
Having just completed Necessary Evil and with a children's book and another adult horror book under construction he shows no sign of slowing down. The author reflected: 'It is a bit worrying now when people write to me and say 'I read one of your books and I thought I always wanted to write something, maybe I will'. And I think 'shit is that the same reason I started?'
'There's a bit of me that thinks you should be slowing down, but the ideas have just been flooding in. Talking about it and writing about it as the years have gone on has become cathartic. I've saved a fortune in therapy.'
'Sometimes those same nerves that have been touched in you, your readers identify with as well, which is what you hope. There's still too much up here that needs to get out.'