In this, the second part of Paul's interview with Muriel Gray (conducted live on stage at FantasyCon 2004), she talks about The Ancient, heroes and villains and the attraction of being a god…...
Paul Kane: For the third book, The Ancient, you were also influenced by desert landscapes of landfill sites when your TV company shot a film that featured them in Glasgow. This inspired the short story 'Shite Hawks' as well…
Muriel Gray: You were embarrassed saying that, weren't you? That's so sweet. You're so well brought up. You can't bring yourself to say (mumbles) 'Shite Hawks'…Actually, Shite Hawks are what the Navy call seagulls. You knew that? No, right, carry on (laughs)
Paul Kane: How did you decide which one to turn into a short story and which one to use for the book?
Muriel Gray: Well, it wasn't hard because…Actually 'Shite Hawks' was quite important because it was the first thing I'd written in colloquial Glaswegian, where I live. I'd always written these big sort of epic things miles away, which I don't think is a bad thing. But one of the things I detest, especially about British filmmaking - I'm sure Christopher Fowler would agree with me here - is that in Britain you're not allowed to dream. You're only allowed to make gritty, realistic dramas about where you are, as if that's all we're capable of doing, so you're not allowed to think about the bigger picture. And particularly in television it was always the same as well. Oh, you're a Scottish production company - then you're good for making a documentary about Herring fishing; the guys in London will make the thing about, y'know, Indian burials. So, I wrote that in colloquial Scottish. I enjoyed it, it was good, and I think I found a voice there. But it was just the horror of the way these guys work in these landfill sites that just inspired me to think about something making itself out of rubbish. And I've always been very passionate about South American culture, and my father was a Chief Engineer on a big boat: a banana boat. He did come up the Clyde in a banana boat…You see, that's a Glaswegian joke. Did you come up the Clyde in a banana boat? Yes! Moving swiftly on…(laughs) And yes, so I was fascinated by the engine room things. Later on when he went back to sea, you'd take your wife, and my mum was up on deck, her floaty scarf blowing in the hot Panama winds, and my dad was downstairs, 110 degrees, sweating. So I was quite fascinated by onboard etiquette, because he was an officer. I was interested in that part as well as obviously a big bastarding monster making itself out of rubbish.
Paul Kane: So you thought that could be extended a bit longer for your novel?
Muriel Gray: Yeah, although unfortunately I started writing The Ancient before The Mummy came out. How irritating is that! Oh, I had a very funny incident with that because this guy wrote to HarperCollins and said she's - like one of these kind of Stephen King things - she's stolen my story. And you think, oh no, here we go. And it was practically the double, but fortunately he wrote it long after the book had been in print. And the lawyer sent this letter back to him and said, it was one of the most insulting things, he said: we can see the similarities but that's simply because of the clichéd nature of the material (big laugh)
Paul Kane: I wouldn't put that on the dust jacket.
Muriel Gray: And it's like, oh, well, that's okay then (laughs) Well, of course it sounds the same because it's a bunch of clichés! (laughs) And then of course The Mummy came out and there are rough similarities, but again, there are only ten stories: that's Marshall McLuhan. And of course it's that idea of something ancient and tempting, being reborn. But you try to bring something unique to it. What I was trying to bring to it was the sense of these Filipinos sailing around the world in these beat up old boats and a whole number of other things.
Paul Kane: I was very interested in the subtext of the rubbish, the undertones of that, sweeping things under the carpet, especially for something like…'Shite-
Muriel Gray: Shite Hawks…say it with me (laughs) Yes, I mean when I wrote 'Shite Hawks' it was obviously not just about the rubbish, but also the people who live there and in the bordering housing estate also being the 'rubbish' that we put into the human landfill sites, the big housing scenes outside Glasgow, so you've got houses next to landfill sites…It seems to me, not to get overtly political, that we're shoving rubbish there and shoving rubbish there, and treating them both the same, and they're making a big attempt to try and live a normal life. So yes, there's a bit of that in there. Whether it was a success or not, I don't know.
Paul Kane: Well, it ended up in Best New Horror, Stephen Jones' anthology…
Muriel Gray: (laughs) Stephen must have been desperate. Ar, we're 1500 words short! (laughs) No, I was incredibly honoured by that because I've been buying that for years, so I was heady with excitement to be included in that. And Stephen emailed me to apologise that I hadn't been on the cover. I'm going, why would I be on the cover! I'm just excited to be inside. I thought it was great.
Paul Kane: The Ancient is set mostly on board a three-quarter mile long supertanker, and for research you gained access to an actual tanker. Did anything make it into the book from that?
Muriel Gray: Oh, absolutely, yes. If I hadn't had all these millions of kids that I've got, I would have been able to go on a voyage on it, which would have been great. But I couldn't spend the time, because one problem is that if you're a passenger on a commercial ship you can buy a ticket very cheaply, but you've gotta go where they say. So they might suddenly change route. I might have a ticket for Texas, but they might suddenly change route in the middle of the sea and you find yourself off to Japan, so I couldn't really risk that. Instead, this Columbian Cobalt came into Hunterston, which is this kind of huge coal depot for the whole North of Britain actually, and I was allowed access to the whole thing. And what was terribly funny was that at the same time, because it's from Columbia, there was this incredibly cheerful bunch of HM Customs people tearing the boat apart looking for drugs, while the Captain was stood there smiling, the crew not minding that all their personal possessions were being slit open, searching for y'know, Heroin. So obviously this happens in every single port they go into. But the whole atmosphere of the boat was fantastic and the holds were so just exciting, the scale of them was just…It was so thrilling. Again I get so excited by big machinery…And a very eerie atmosphere as well, it was like a haunted house, and again not an original idea but it was such an amazing feeling. It was like a big spaceship.
Paul Kane: What I was going to say was, were you influenced for that by films like Alien, and the aquatic movies that came in the late 80s like Deep Star Six and the cycle that came along there?
Muriel Gray: No, of course I've never seen any of those (laughs) Of course I was. Obviously Alien is one of the best films ever made; it's superb. But again, it's one of these awful things, while the manuscript of The Ancient was with the publisher this shitty film came out set on a boat with Donald Sutherland…I can't even remember what it was called, I just went along for some light relief. Does that ring a bell with anyone?
Audience Member: Virus, I think it was.
Muriel Gray: Yes, it was, that's right - and there was that robot thing and I was thinking, oh no! So I should have sued them, and then they could have said, no it's just because of the clichéd material (laughs) So…I don't know…Maybe I'm just a walking cliché. I'm really depressed now (laughs)
Paul Kane: The character Esther, who again is the main protagonist, becomes an all-seeing, all-knowing person just before she's going to be sacrificed. Is that something you'd like to…
Muriel Gray: Would I like to be all-seeing, all-knowing…Naw, wouldn't interest me (laughs) No, I just think that's a very interesting thing. This occurs in quite a lot of mythology in lots of different cultures, the idea that you are imbued with this…And I just think it's fascinating. What is it, this random knowledge - what would that bring to you? How would you use it? So I was just firing in random understanding, and I had such fun writing the things that she knew. What could they be? There's a thing under the seabed that's going to change the world, that was one line - what is it (laughs) a chemical? It's just the idea that you couldn't process that amount of information, you would actually go insane. It's a form of super autism in a way, too much stuff coming in and not being able to handle it, so…that bit fascinated me enormously. Again, it's a well documented thing; course it's drug induced in Incas, but they believe that really the person about to be sacrificed is imbued with this all-seeing knowledge, when really they're just drugged up to the eyeballs. Well, yeah…I need cake (laughs)
Paul Kane: And of course she uses it to get out of her predicament and sifts through the knowledge.
Muriel Gray: Yes, sifts through and finds out: oh yes, there's the exit (laughs) Run away quickly.
Paul Kane: And if you did have this all-seeing, all-knowing power, what would you like to know?
Muriel Gray: What would I like to…I'd like to know everything! It's funny you should say that, one of my biggest frustrations is that I don't know everything. Just to get onto religion, I don't understand…I don't want an afterlife, I just want to know everything. I want to be able to understand the nature of the molecules in this table and the furthest away star…I mean, doesn't everybody?
Paul Kane: Yeah.
Muriel Gray: You didn't say that very convincingly. Thank God for that…I mean you know what I mean: surely everyone wants to know what it's like to be God. And anyone who doesn't want to be God is nuts, because of course you want to be God. To be all-knowing, all-seeing, otherwise what's the reason to be alive?
Paul Kane: Have you seen Bruce Almighty?
Muriel Gray: (laughs) No…I've seen the trailer. (laughs) It's not a psychosis, it's just a philosophy.
Paul Kane: Your characters are all very well-rounded, you take a lot of time to build these characters up. I was especially impressed by those in a short story of yours called 'School Gate Mums' from Crimewave 7. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about?
Muriel Gray: Oh God, that was what we call a mistake…erm…I wrote it for a charity book, actually, for breast cancer, called Scottish Girls about Town and Crimewave subsequently, so I didn't write it for there…Just very briefly, it's a story about a school kid who's been bullied and the child's obviously bullied because the mother comes from a bullied family, a single woman and her son - and it just turns out that this single mother happens to be a hit man (laughs) like they do. And I was just having fun, and I just don't think it's a very well written story because it was slightly dashed off, but obviously I did base it on the school gates I stand at every day. And of course when it came out there was quite a lot of hostility from some of the other women who stand at the school gates: I wasn't meaning them, or imagining I was a hit man or wanting to kill them - it was just a bit of fun. So yes, that is the school my child goes to, he's never been bullied - just fucking try it mate - and it was a slight power thing. We all have fantasies about being that woman who's quiet and mousy, but actually just flies across to the States and kills people for millions of pounds - bit of a personal fantasy…I am psychotic, it is actually becoming clear now talking to you (laughs) I want to be God, I dream about killing people…
Paul Kane: Is there that amount of backbiting going on with mums at the school gates?
Muriel Gray: I don't know, I'm not one of them…They can sniff the fact that you're weird a mile off. And there's a couple of them that are terribly sweet and they do pursue me and try to get me to go for coffee and stuff like that, and someone'll just give them one of my books and I'll never hear from them again. And you can't blame them…Plus here's the thing, you imagine that you're going to have lots in common with them just because you've both got kids, but of course I've got nothing in common with them at all. Our reproductive organs work, therefore we must have something in common; I've nothing in common at all. The thing I find with lots of these women who are terribly sweet, is that they can't abstract, they can only talk in anecdotes. So you can't say: what do you think of poor old Ken Bigley, or whatever. They just say, oh a friend of mine was in Iraq once…No, no, I want to know what you think. It's a very strange female middle class thing, that they've been taught not to express an opinion or abstract in any way…So I find it quite hard to connect with that, but my fault not theirs. And they're not interested in trucks or books…In fact they laughed when I said I was coming here this weekend; but I'll be the one in the sauna and watching porn (laughs).
Paul Kane: If you could be a character from one of your stories or books, which one would you pick?
Muriel Gray: Oh, one of the demons for sure (laughs and roars) I don't know, probably the first one actually: Sam. Y'know, the native Canadian, because I just fancied him….A smashing debut, Time Out…I think I got told off in Time Out for fancying him too much, for being too obvious
Paul Kane: Right…Well, what I was going to ask was about heroes and villains, which you've kind of covered a little bit. So villains are more exciting?
Muriel Gray: Oh yeah, villains are always more exciting. Who cares about the good guys? But that's just standard, isn't it? Everybody's more interested in Jack Palance than John Wayne. Being evil is much more entertaining and interesting. Well, being fictionally evil is much more entertaining - because real life isn't romantic fiction. Horror and science fiction and fantasy are all kind of romantic. We're assuming there's good and evil and we can comment. Whereas, of course, you look at the things happening in the world, we mentioned Iraq, there's nothing remotely attractive about the manifestation of evil when it's genuine. In fact it's repugnant, and in a way that's what makes this so attractive; it's terrible romantic to make up things that are attractively evil. And in fact it's very difficult to make them repugnant, because as soon as you start going into that they automatically have a resonance and attractiveness that we feel drawn to. M.R. James' ghosts and strange spectres and spirits are gorgeously attractive. They're not repugnant at all. You want to know more about them, you want to draw closer to them. But if he was writing about murdering bastards that chop people's heads off, that's not interesting at all.
Paul Kane: The villains in your stories have good points and bad points as well, to make them more…I mean, Nelly McFarland's one of my favourites. She's just got something about her.
Muriel Gray: Well, she's just a power crazy woman…Wonder where I got that from (laughs) But yeah, you think to yourself if I had the opportunity to…That's the other thing, that's why I think Satanism is hilarious, because if it worked don't you think we'd all be fucking doing it? Of course we would, there'd be pentangles end to end in your house. So if something works, if there really was genuine power…I mean, yeah, of course I'd do it. But it doesn't work, it's nonsense. I'm sorry if I've offended any Satanists and I'm sure there are some here (laughs) You'll prove me wrong, I'll get back to my hotel room and my head'll explode (laughs) I say that but it's probably not true, because you have a moral centre and if you're required to have power by doing something very wicked then you probably wouldn't. But the idea of supernatural power given you…well, of course in 'Lost Hearts' that was the most exciting thing, do you remember? About the guy who's trying to kill his nephew in order to be able to fly unaided. That's all he wants to do, be able to fly unaided. Try Easyjet, it would have saved the guy's life! Unaided by any service of any kind. So yes, I'm obviously attracted to the idea of power…That wasn't your question at all.
Paul Kane: I forget what it was now (laughs) We were talking a little bit about this earlier on during the con, about genre boundaries and marketing and all that kind of thing. What's your opinion about it?
Muriel Gray: In fact that's what I was about to say, when these schoolgate mums were laughing, they kept imagining that there'd be lots of people dressed in Star Trek ears. I mean, look, for God's sake, you don't understand how literary fantasy and science fiction and horror is. In fact I lost my tempter on that thing you mentioned earlier, that End of Story where the public were asked to finish off six short stories by various people. So they thought, cleverly, they'd chosen people from different genres. They chose Alexei Sayle, which is very good, Faye Weldon and so on…And for horror they chose Shaun Hutson. Why didn't they take Ramsey, why didn't they take Graham, Mike Harrison. (to Ramsey) Did they ask you by the way?
Ramsey Campbell: No.
Muriel Gray: You see, that so gets on my tits. I just really lost my temper and we all had this huge fight. I said, you just think horror's shit, and they're going well, it is. It is not! And I do not understand how this genre which includes some of the best literary writers around - and some of them are in the audience - can have this ridiculous brushstroke across it, like we're all crap. And I just get really cross, and so I will be hiring hit men to kill the people who think that (laughs).
Ramsey Campbell: Or a demon!
Paul Kane: So we know who was your least favourite, who was your favourite?
Muriel Gray: Out of the actual writers? Well, Alexei Sayle I love, but he's my pal so I'm a bit biased. You see I didn't like the chick-lit, and I can't understand why it gets more respect than horror. It's about shoes and handbags.
Ramsey Campbell: It's all fetishism.
Muriel Gray: And now I'm getting all cross again, I'm all red and bothered (laughs).
Paul Kane: As we heard at the start, Stephen King's one of your fans.
Muriel Gray: He is not (laughs) He is not one of my fans, he just does this to everybody, he's just such a nice man.
Paul Kane: You interviewed him for an audiotape once. What was that like?
Muriel Gray: Well, it wasn't an audiotape, it was his big appearance at the Royal Festival Hall, and I got the job of interviewing him which was absolutely fantastic. And I was very pregnant at the time. I was all emotional, and of course I never thought I'd get a chance to meet him. And I just heard him in the dark (in American accent), "Is Muriel here?" (pretends to cry) He said my name! And then at the end he read this short story that he'd had published, and he said I'm going to be interviewed by Muriel who's a great writer and I recommend her, and I nearly burst into tears. So the interview was hopeless, it was along the lines of: How great are you? No, no, really how great are you? It wasn't exactly Jeremy Paxman.
Paul Kane: What's your favourite novel of Stephen's?
Muriel Gray: Oh, I don't know…The Shining, or Carrie. Those two are absolutely fantastic…and again I think those are two very literary pieces of work. But people write off what happened to him, with his drug problem, where he got a bit sloppy later on, blah-de-blah. But when he was writing at the beginning, people forget that in terms of American literature he did actually start that idea of examining small town American life and trying to juxtapose the normal with the abnormal. And also he introduced a kind of syntax and a use of tone and pace into the novel. I think he should be recognised for it; I think he's a very literary novelist, and I won't hear a criticism against Stephen King, to say he's crap and churns them out. And some of his short stories are absolutely masterful, so I would put him up there with the other American greats. Shirley Jackson is my all-time favourite American short story writer; in my opinion she can't be touched.
Paul Kane: Well, it's almost time, so we'll ask if anybody has any questions from the audience…
Muriel Gray: Except Graham Joyce (laughs)
Audience Member: I want to ask about when you interviewed Alice Cooper on The Tube…
Muriel Gray: Did I?
(big audience laugh)
Audience Member: Now Alice brought a selection of horror films with him, and you were going oooh, how can you enjoy watching that? One was The Evil Dead.
Muriel Gray: Oh, The Evil Dead, I've got that on three formats (laughs). You have to understand I was twenty-four, kay? Number one. And I was trying to be a smart ass…and - I really don't remember this…
Audience Member: How can you not remember?
Muriel Gray: Listen, I've got such a bad…I've never done a drug in my life, so I've not even got an excuse (laughs) and so I've forgotten the whole thing. I was in a restaurant the other day with a friend and Pete Townsend, y'know, from The Who, came in, and she happened to know him very well. So he came over to the table and I said lovely to meet you, and he said nice to see you again, and I went no, we've never met. And he said, yes, we have…and instead of leaving it there, I said, do you think I would forget meeting the seminal guitarist from one of Britain's most important rock bands and he went, you interviewed me on The Tube: and I said, so I did. And now you come to mention it, it's starting to come back about Alice Cooper, because I love Alice Cooper - and Evil Dead's one of the best films ever made, so I was acting. I mean I just had to pretend all the time that I didn't like Duran, Duran because that's what Paula and Jules said: it was just an act, y'know? With my sticky out hair. So sorry (laughs) I did the same thing, I remember, to Alex Cox who directed Repo Man. I was just always looking for a fight, y'know. I felt that was my remit on The Tube, to pick fights, even with icons like Alice Cooper and everything…And I do remember now because he was incredibly sweet afterwards. He said something about ripping my 'pantyhose' off, and I went Pantyhose? Do you mean tights? So yes, I do remember it now, thank you for that (shivers).
Mark Morris: A lot of people in this room have been hit by the slump in the horror market, I just wondered if you'd had any pressure from your publishers to move away from the genre at all?
Muriel Gray: No, my publishers were great - they've never been anything but supportive. I strangely wondered whether I should try this like palette cleansing thing? I do actually quite like writing humour as well, because The First Fifty about mountaineering was just a bunch of gags, really. So I thought I wonder if I should just try totally cleansing my palette of all these great big pieces of machinery and write something small scale. So, and you'll be ahead of me on this one, I started writing this thing about a women's book group, and it was very funny and there was five of them and they dissect popular culture and they start off with books and go on to films. And halfway through writing it when Harpers had the manuscript obviously Annie Griffin's Book Groupcame out on Channel Four. I was praying that it would be crap; course it was brilliant. So, I just abandoned it, because even though I'd started before it, you just can't be seen to be…and mine was a very literary conceit because each chapter was written in first person, and then the minutes were taken by someone, which reflected the reality of what you'd just read. So, I keep getting thwarted like that, and never went back to it. But the next book I'm going to do is a comedy horror, and there's no such genre - so no-one in their right mind's going to buy it. It's been kicking around for so long, I've just gotta get it down. So we'll see how that goes. But a funny thing, I was at the Edinburgh book festival doing a session and I pitched these two ideas to an audience of 500 people and asked them which one, and (puts hand in air) 500 of them put their hands up for this comedy horror, and I thought what a good focus group. So yes, I think the problem…are you allowed to be self critical about your own work or have you got to pretend that you're great.
Paul Kane: No, that's okay.
Muriel Gray: Fine (laughs) I think the problem with my books is that there's an air of serious pomposity running through them that I find slightly unpleasant, and I don't know where it comes from. Because it's not like me, I'm not pompous, and I'm not pretentious, and yet strangely I found myself falling into a style that leant itself to sounding rather pompous. So I don't think it's going to do me any harm to break away from that and write something that's funny as well as scary. But actually there is no genre of comedy horror, is there?
Ramsey Campbell: Evil Dead?
Muriel Gray: It's not straightforward comedy, it's tongue in cheek. But this is actual straightforward gag track. But yes, obviously there's a great tradition of…I mean Lovecraft wasn't really taking himself seriously either. So we'll see - maybe I'll start a new genre; or maybe nobody will buy it. But I don't think I'll do this under my own name, and I don't care if I don't get any money for it.
Paul Kane: Any other questions? Ah, Christopher Fowler.
Muriel Gray: Now I'm scared because I'm such a big fan.
Christopher Fowler: How aware were you of being a woman in what was traditionally seen as a man's genre? Certainly no-one's made the breakthrough quite as well as you…I'm afraid I wrote the 'Smashing Debut' line for Time Out (laughs)
Muriel Gray: (laughs) Oh that's right, you did the review, didn't you? I forgot about that (laughs) That's right, you were very kind actually. Thank you for that 'Smashing Debut' quote…I've actually got no memory at all, have I? Who am I again? (laughs) Do you know what I find really funny about that, Christopher, is that loads of women read horror. There's a huge fanbase of women, it's not just spotty boys in parkas that read it, and I think it's really peculiar - I'm really glad you brought this up. I've just edited the next month's edition of Myslexia, which is the women's writing magazine, and they have themed months and this one is about horror. So we get lots of submissions from female writers and you've just got to pick the best ones. I don't know why women like it, my suspicion is that women want to be taken seriously as writers. It's the way that Margaret Atwood wouldn't be recognised as a science fiction writer, but she is, she's a very good science fiction writer. She calls it Speculative Fiction (pulls face). I mean where does that come from? I won't be nominated for the Booker if I'm a science fiction writer… and she's right, she wouldn't be. But I mean Ramsey should have been nominated for several of his books and I'm sure it's just because it's called horror that you're not, y'know? So maybe that's the answer, and women writers are more self conscious, perhaps. And it's maybe a sweeping generalisation, but I think women in general are quite self-conscious about how they're perceived. That might be the reason for it, but it's not good. There's a lot of feminine and a lot of male horror writing, and it seems peculiar that women don't participate in it more.
Paul Kane: I think we've just got time for one more…
Audience Member: What books are you currently reading?
Muriel Gray: Ah, I'm quite embarrassed. Do you really want to know?
Paul Kane: We do now.
Muriel Gray: Okay, number one: I'm in a ladies' book group and we've just finished reading The Koran, because we thought it was important. So we've just finished that and we've discussed it. I've nearly finished The Da Vinci Code (laughs) and again I think it's important to read that. And I'm halfway through Swan's Way because…I've always got two or three books on the go. The hardest one was The Koran. It's a very long book.
Ramsey Campbell: In two sentences what do you think of The Da Vinci Code?
Muriel Gray: Well, you can't do it in two sentences. I started reading it because I was hoping to, y'know, dis it. But actually it's quite compelling. It's very, 'Oh, and here's some facts about the Mona Lisa', but it's just entertainment, so at the end of the day I get it, I understand it. I'm not snobby at all, I can move from Proust to Dan Brown effortlessly, same as all of you can, because it's just writing. But the only thing I can't physically read is very, very bad writing. But I'll stop talking now…
Paul Kane: Thank you very much, Muriel Gray!
You can listen to an audio version of the whole interview here
Interview (C) Paul Kane & Muriel Gray, September 2004.
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