I was originally asked this by Rob Bedford and answered it on SFF World in February, 2014…
I danced around this hulk of a question for ages trying to find its weak spot. It was like boxing a Decepticon.
After a couple of weeks, dodging and feinting without landing a single blow, I was tired, thirsty and needed a hug. There was no one around so, in desperation, I embraced the gargantuan, titanium-hulled battle-conundrum’s ankle. He turned out to be a real sweetie.
“You know, Joseph, this question just relates to genre and how you feel about it.”
“Sure. Relax and enjoy yourself. You don’t even have to answer it.”
“Not even a ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”
“Erm…just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ might not go down too well…”
“What should I say then?”
“Anything. Whatever you want.” He leaned down. “But make me look mean, OK? Ferocious. Know what I’m saying?”
The borderline between genres can be a bit blurry, can’t it?
As a reader, I don’t much mind what genre I’m presented with as long as I’m entertained and involved in the story. Here’s a sample of some of my favourite books:
• All James Herriot’s vet novels
• The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R Donaldson
• The Ritual by Adam Nevill
• Every single word by Douglas Adams
• Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
• The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker
• The Road by Cormac McCarthy
• The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
• My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
• Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley
• Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z Brite
Only a few there but enough to show that, although I read Horror, and very contentedly so, I enjoy other ‘types’ of story too. Enjoy; that’s the key.
As a writer, my tastes and moods are almost as eclectic. I write Humour, SF, Erotica, Children’s Verse, Fantasy, Horror and many of their sub-genres and crossovers.
My ‘visible’ work categorises me as a Horror or, more specifically, Eco-Horror writer. But, like most authors, what I have ‘on display’ represents a fraction of the whole. There’s also the almost published, the limitedly published and, of course, the unpublishable – tons of that!
So, when a question comes up about exploring Horror elements in a Post Apocalyptic world, from my particular, and probably quite odd, writerly point of view, there’s no simple answer.
It’s partly because I write in such a naïve and uncalculated way. I’m instinctive (haphazard, an overwriter, rarely plan anything), lazy (avoid research, reality and work of any kind – especially writing), whimsical (whimsical, basically) and my work is organic (I write the bits I feel able to write first and the bits I feel unable to write just before the deadline).
What I’m trying to say here is not that a question like “Do you see Post Apocalyptic fiction as a great way to explore Horror elements in a setting more associated with the Science Fiction branch of the Speculative Fiction tree?” would never occur to me, only that it would never occur to me before I started writing something. I’m just not that smart/logical/sensible. It probably is the sort of thing I should consider a little earlier in the process – like during the non-existent planning phase.
I know. It’s embarrassing.
The things that do occur to me before writing begins are much more
A) emotional: do I love the idea enough to write a whole novel about it?
B) intellectual: how much sleep will I lose obsessing about it?
C) visceral: should I go for a quick poo before I begin?
But here’s the thing that I do love about writing fiction:
You can do anything you want. Anything. If it’s something you know nothing about, you make it up. Do I love a good apocalypse? Do I love what happens after the apocalypse? Do I love the gut-twisting, soul-crushing horror of it all? Oh, yes. Yes, to all of those. Sometimes, that’s as much thought as I’ll give an idea before writing it.
MEAT was Post-Apocalyptic. Garbage Man was Cuspal-Apocalyptic. The Black Dawn was both. But it wasn’t the settings or genre that drew me into writing those books. Again, it’s a purely personal thing, but what came first in those novels – and every single tale I’ve ever written – was a phrase or an image or a scene or a character or a title. One or more of those tiny sparks then collided with another or with a subject so disturbing that the only way to face it – to even try to understand it – was to take it into the exploratory world of fiction and write everything about it that occurred to me.
I do this in the hope that the resulting tale will be a good one, because it’s in these seemingly trivial prompts that I so often find a story. And if no story presents itself – which happens a lot less frequently these days, thank goodness – I stop writing.
For me, compared to story, genre is almost inconsequential: genre is the wrapper. Story is the candy.
The trouble with this, again just for me, is that if I flit too much from one genre to another – something I do in my mind a lot, if not always on paper – publishers won’t want anything to do with me.
Let’s say, for example, I have an idea about an orphaned boy who becomes fixated on a dangerous father-figure. From a ‘business’ point of view, I do need to consider which element of genre will work with that outline, simply to remain an attractive publishing prospect. At the end of the day, though, whether I set it in a prison, on another planet, in a parallel universe or during a zombie plague, the story remains the focus.
To put it another way, a good story will resonate right into a reader’s heart. A clever use of genre won’t. It can’t.
In fact, now that I’ve had the chance to consider all this ‘on paper’, I’m certain I’d actively avoid any idea that struck me as an awesome combination of or inventive use of genres. If that’s the thing that looks all sparkly, there’s probably not enough weight to the project.
But, if the way the light touches the trees on a winter’s morning awakens an emotion and I sense a story in that, I will begin to write into that feeling, to tunnel down and unearth the tale I know is waiting for me in the darkness. For me, genre will always arise from the nature of the story, rather than the other way around.
“Dude,” said the giant, machinelike question.
“That was awesome.”
“Totes. Except for one thing.”
“You forgot to make me look scary.”
It reached down with a vast metallic hand, picked me up, tore my head off and drank me like a smoothie before stomping my remains into the ground.
“No I didn’t,” said a tiny, disembodied voice…