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Interview: Jonathan Oliver, fantasy editor and author

02 May 2012

I’m the editor-in-chief of two science-fiction, fantasy, and horror imprints: Solaris and Abaddon Books. I also used to be the graphic- novels editor for 2000 AD.

I’ve written two novels, both set in the “shared-world” fantasy series Twilight of Kerberos: The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos. I’ve also written a whole bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of publications, most recently a story about an Anglican priest facing the apocalypse, called The Day or The Hour, which appeared in the anthology Pandemonium.

You know, even having grown up in the C of E, I’ve never written a horror story set in a church. That’s not for fear of breaking any taboos; rather that it hadn’t really occurred to me. The Day or the Hour does feature a vicar; so I suppose that’s the closest I’ve got; and faith is a central theme in the two novels.

If I could be financially stable in such a vocation I’d love to be able to do that full-time; but the life of a freelance writer is not an easy one. There are many examples of editor/ writers in the genre, though. George Mann, of Games Workshop, is pub­lished by Snow Books, as an ex­ample. Or there’s the fantasy writer Mark Charan Newton, or the “young-adults” author Will Hill, who used to be a full-time editor.

My personal favourite is horror, and I’ve been really privileged to work with many of my favourite writers in that field. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for startling new fiction, but it’s a case of “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Both my novels are my love letter to the fantasy pulp adventures of writers like Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith, and fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I wanted to write fun, action-packed fantasy that was also steeped in the tradition of the weird tale.

I suppose the appeal is that there are no constraints. When you in­volve the supernatural or an element of fantasy, you can do any­thing in a work of fiction.

Horror and fantasy are also a good way of exploring metaphysical and spiritual issues. I suppose that one of the appeals of the genre is that we can talk about and face our fears in the safe environment of fiction.

As to why people read and write it — I think there are those with a fascination or a desire to understand the darker side of humanity. But there’s also the sense of wonder you can get from a really good ghost story — that encounter with the numinous or weird that takes your breath away.

Horror can be thought of more as a tone than a genre. For example, No Country for Old Men feels to me very much like a horror story, but it’s not labelled as such. Popularly, the horror genre is thought of in terms of serial killers or monsters, but it is much wider than that, and can encompass many things, including the visceral, psychological, and emo­tional.

In my teens, I devoured everything I could find by writers such as Stephen King, Richard Laymon, and James Herbert. Later on, I discovered the work of Ramsey Campbell, and that radically changed my perspective on the genre. He’s been a favourite ever since. I still also love King’s work: his Dark Tower series, in particular, is well worth checking out.

Good horror writing gives you what any good writing should: it takes you somewhere you’ve never been, gives you a new perspective on something, or just involves you on a deep emotional level with the char­acters therein.

I was born in Nottingham, and brought up in Huthwaite and Ravens­head until we moved to Kent when I was around 16. My father is Gordon Oliver, who is currently the Rector at St John the Baptist, Meop­ham. My mother is a psychiatrist, and my sister is head of PR for the Methodist Church.

It sounds awfully pretentious, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer from a fairly early age. That, or an actor. Other than that, would you believe, at one point I really, really wanted to be an investigator of the paranormal? I blame Ghostbusters. It was in the context of literature, not real ghosts.

The only exorcism story my father ever told me was when he was called to a house where the plates were flying off the walls. He phoned the local mining board and asked if they were mining in the area, and, yes, they were.

Getting married is right up there. That, and my wife and I deciding to go for IVF treatment, which, I’m pleased to say, gave us our beautiful daughter, Maia.

Regrets? A writer colleague once suggested we call Stephen King, as I had a question I’d always wanted to ask him. This man actually had his phone number, and was friends with him. I was slightly mortified about the idea of talking to a hero of mine, though; so I passed up the oppor­tunity.

I’d like to be remembered for being a good father and husband. And being a good editor and writer.

My father has influenced me hugely. Not only spiritually — Dad had a lot to do with the strength and depth of my faith — but also in giving me a love of books and the written word. When I was a kid, Dad told me that books are one of the most important things there is. Also, when he was Director of Pastoral Studies at St John’s College, he told me his job was pretty much to read books. I thought that sounded wonderful, and now that’s pretty much what I do for a living.

A fictional character that has been a massive influence would be Lewis Carroll’s Alice. As a child dealing with an illogical and seemingly chaotic world, Alice had a strong in­fluence on me in my formative years.

Let’s do a top five books, though my choices change regularly: The Shining by Stephen King, The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, and The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce. And I also adore The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

It really has to be one of my Dad’s sermons that is most memorable, and two spring to mind: there was a midnight-mass sermon he gave where he described the angels appearing to the shepherds as like hearing Ella Fitzgerald for the first time: that mix of astonishing beauty and deep humanity. Also, there was another Christmas sermon when Ali, my wife, was pregnant with Maia, and Dad talked on the subject of babies. That felt pretty special after all we’d been through with IVF.

I adore Matthew 6.25-34. That whole passage on worry is so beautiful, and my father used it to help me deal with an anxiety attack once. Whenever I get worked up about something, that passage really helps put some perspective on things. As for my least favourite, well, there’s some fairly dubious stuff in the Old Testament. Can I just say anything used out of context to promote prejudice or hatred?

The most reassuring sound in the world is Radio 4. That shows just how terribly middle-class I am. My mother listens to Radio 4, and I remember drifting off to sleep as a very young child to the sound of The Archers coming up the stairs from the kitchen. Another wonderful sound is the sound of my daughter burbling happily to herself in the mornings as I’m getting everybody’s breakfast ready.

I get a daily dose of anger from the news when the latest Tory plan for the NHS is discussed. What they are doing is utterly utterly vile. See: I’m angry already.

I’m happiest with my family, at a good meal. That, and when a story I’m writing is going par­ticularly well. My fav­ourite place is beside my wife on the sofa, watching a good movie and drink­ing a glass of wine.

I do pray every night before going to sleep, and it’s the usual thing: giving thanks for the blessings of family and friends and life in general, praying for healing in areas of conflict or disaster. I’m sure those are pretty much what everybody prays for.

I think the resource­fulness and imagination of the human race gives me hope. Obviously, things can seem a bit dark right now; but I think it’s massively important to try and not live your life in fear and despair.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with M. R. James. The Dean of a Cambridge college, he wrote ghost stories to read out to the boys in the college in the Edwardian era. They’re deeply frightening, and usually involve clerics and colleges. They give you the sort of comfort you get from Agatha Christie, dealing with murder in a sort of Sunday-after­noon way.

Jonathan Oliver was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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