Monday, November 23, 2015

Interview with Ken Preston

I very much enjoyed Ken Preston's vampire novel Joe Coffin Season One, and in honor of the release of the sequel, Joe Coffin Season Two, I sat down with Ken and interviewed him.

Next to zombies, vampires are the most written-about monsters in horror today. What makes the Joe Coffin series stand out from the rest?

I know exactly what you mean. Do we really need another vampire novel? Seriously?

The answer to that question is tied up with the reason I write fiction. My stories aren’t about vampires, or zombies, massive robots, aliens, sex, love, hatred, racism, bravery, monsters, sinners, saints, well you get the picture, I could go on but I won’t.

Whatever story I write, in whatever genre, my main focus is always on the people in that story. I want to find out who they are, what makes them tick, what they would do in certain situations and why. I want to feel something for them, even the villains, I want the reader to feel something for them, become invested in the story through the people in that story.

So the fact that the Joe Coffin books are populated with vampires is kind of secondary to me. I’m not particularly clever at the author marketing side of the business, or making a plan to write a bestselling novel. If that had been the case I would have researched what was the up and coming genre to be writing in. But no, I had a story I wanted to tell, I needed to tell, and that story was about a mobster called Joe Coffin.

Who happens to fight vampires.

Some people like to listen to music when they read. What would be a good soundtrack to read Joe Coffin by?

Oh wow, now that is an interesting question.

I’m not sure I know how to answer that question, so can I tell you what I have been listening to whilst writing Joe Coffin?

You have to bear in mind that I recently bought myself a turntable, and so my listening choices suddenly became limited to what I still had on vinyl.

Let’s see…

I picked up a record recently called Louisiana Rock n Roll. Hadn’t got a single idea what it was going to sound like, but I was pleasantly surprised. Highlights on that album are ‘Sea of Love’ and ‘Breaking up Is Hard to Do’, both of which I can envisage being played over a violent scene in a movie adaptation of Joe Coffin.

I have also been listening to a lot of Electric Light Orchestra, and I actually namecheck one of their songs in Joe Coffin Season One. ‘Evil Woman’ aptly describes Steffanie.

Jim Croce has also been a favourite recently, and here I’m going to let you in on an in-joke in Season One. In the chapter titled ‘meaner than a junkyard dog’ Emma jokingly refers to Coffin as Leroy. Big Bad Leroy Brown is a Jim Croce song, and one of the lines in the song describes him as “…meaner than a junkyard dog.” But I never actually explain that in the book!

Some Ennio Morricone would be great to listen to. He writes such cool musical scores, and again I reference him with Tom’s ringtone being the theme tune from ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’.
And last but certainly not least, we need to have some Queen. Maybe ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ or ‘Killer Queen’!

Of all the places in the world to set a vampire outbreak, in Joe Coffin you placed it in Birmingham, England. Why?

The short answer to that question is, because I live there. Or at least very near. I’m familiar with Birmingham, so I don’t have to do a whole lot of research for my settings.

The longer answer is this: Partial inspiration for Joe Coffin came from an old BBC TV series called Gangsters. When I was a child I used to stay up late on a Friday night to watch it. I was far too young to be exposed to material like that (particularly the scenes involving drug taking) but I loved it. There was nothing else like it on TV, and there hasn’t been since.

The setup is fairly hackneyed and overused, even back then when it was first shown. A villain is released from prison and wants to simply get the money he is owed and then get out of town. Of course it’s not that simple, and things become a lot more complicated.

What made it stand out was the writing. Quite simply it’s written and filmed as though it was a spaghetti western, (there is even a nod to this from the director in that the strippers in the club strip to the theme tune to The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly) or an American film noir.

In fact, I was so enamored of the series that an early draft of Joe Coffin was set in the 1970s, when Gangsters was filmed and set.

Unfortunately the final series of Gangsters wound up becoming extremely surreal and disappeared up its own arse, something I promise isn’t going to happen to Joe Coffin.

Tell us about your plans for the ungentle giant named Joe. Where do you see the series going?

The core concept I initially had for Joe Coffin was of a vampire hunter who happens to be married to a vampire. That’s kind of where I am headed still, although the series has become much broader than I anticipated, and with a multi-character storyline.

The vampire threat is going to keep growing, and Joe is going to keep on being right in the middle of it, even though that is the last place he wants to be! I feel like I am telling one huge story over the course of these books, and there will definitely come a time when I will write THE END and that will be it, no more Joe Coffin books. But when that is, and how it will happen, I have no idea.

Joe Coffin isn’t the only thing you’ve written. Tell us about your other books.

I have a short story collection out, called Population:DEAD!. That has had some great feedback, especially the title story (zombies, another horror trope!) and How To Eat A Car, and The Man Who Murdered Himself. The Man Who . . . in particular struck a chord with readers, and I get asked about the ending. I have to say, yes I know for sure what happens at the end, and I even point out that there is a clue in the story, but you’ve just got to go with what you think. Go with your ending.

That particular story is also about depression, and I was just coming out of a period of serious depression when I wrote it. It was part of the healing process for me, and I think that can be partly why it resonates with readers.

I also write romance books for a British publisher. Quite a big gap between those two genres, I know, but like I said, it’s always more about the people than the plots or the genre for me.
I also have a Young Adult series starting soon, involving time travelling dinosaurs!

Which of your characters has the most Ken Preston in him (so to speak)? I do hope it’s not Corpse.

Ha! Nope, and neither is it Stump! Actually, it’s someone much worse than either of those two. It’s Tom Mills. Readers reacted so strongly to him. They said things like ‘I hated Tom,’ and ‘I absolutely loathed him’. And I was punching the air, going YES!

Because Tom is a despicable character. Absolutely. But I kind of felt for him, and empathized with him a little. I can’t excuse anything he does in the book, but still . . .

Shortly after Joe Coffin Season One was published and I was getting this reader feedback about Tom I was still going through counselling, and I chatted with my therapist about this. She said, maybe those people who have expressed this feel this way because they see a little bit of Tom in themselves, and it repulses them.

I don’t know. Maybe.

Everyone likes to talk to genre writers about genre fiction, so let’s get away from that for a moment. Who’s your favorite literary (non-genre) fiction author? Favorite literary work?

I absolutely adore To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t want to say anything about the controversy surrounding Go Set A Watchman, but I haven’t read it and I don’t intend to. To Kill A Mockingbird is too precious to me.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is another amazing book, although we are straying back into genre here, as this big, fat, Man Booker nominated novel is simultaneously a science fiction tale, a fast paced thriller, a historical drama, a comedy, and an end of the world fable. Don’t tell me how rubbish the film is, read the book instead.

You’re a family man. How do you think that affects your writing?

Family is very important to me, obviously. As I write this I am at a skatepark where my son is having skateboarding lessons. Everything else, including the writing, fits around family. Family, and family history, also infuses my writing. It was difficult for me to write the opening chapter of Joe Coffin Season One, with the two boys exploring the abandoned house. And then, coming back to Tom Mills, it was very hard being in his head sometimes, especially when writing down his thoughts and feelings on his son, and his wife.

Another aspect is my own relationship with my father, which wasn’t particularly good. Absent fathers are a common theme in my books, although I never intend them to be. Joe Coffin’s father was a difficult man, and helped shape the young boy into the man he is now. Tom is an absent father to his own son. The most evil vampire of all is referred to as ‘the Father’. Hmm, maybe I need to go see that counsellor again.

How have your artistic background and training affected your writing career?

It’s all wrapped up in one, to be honest. Creativity is the driving force of my life. If I was stuck in a job that didn’t allow me to express myself creatively I know I would go insane. Seriously.

I’ve written about this before, but I am convinced that part of what made my father the man he was, was his denial of his true, creative self. Unfortunately for him he was born into a culture and a time that pressured men to be a ‘Real Man’. To be a ‘Real Man’ seemed to involve spending your all his time outside of work in bars, with a cigarette permanently dangling from your mouth, and bullshitting his way through life.

But he did have a creative side which, despite his attempts to hide, I caught glimpses of. It makes me sad that he was ashamed of his creativity, and that he had to hide it and, ultimately, do his best to deny it.
Creativity, whether it be writing, painting, music, tapestry, rock carving, anything, is the driving force of the universe, and shapes the meaning of our lives.

Tell us about your love affair with the movie Jaws.

It is the perfect movie.

Oh, you want more? ;-)

I first saw Jaws upon its release in 1975 in a packed cinema, and I was eleven years old. Almost as a single entity we, the members of the audience, screamed, laughed, gripped our armrests, and jumped out of our seats for the running time of 120 minutes.

At the end of the movie, when Chief Brody takes aim and blows the shark out of the water, the entire cinema audience jumped to its feet and cheered and clapped, releasing all that tension, and reveling in Brody’s (our) victory.

That was it for me. I was hooked on movies forevermore. And for me, Spielberg has never topped that movie experience. Yes, he’s made some damn fine movies since, but Jaws? That film is note perfect.

I was going to finish there, but I think I will say one more thing. Something I have never told anyone before. I think maybe another reason I loved Jaws so much is the character of Brody, played so brilliantly by Roy Scheider.

Looking back from a perspective of being a father myself now, I think as a child I projected Martin Brody onto my own life. He was the man I wanted to be my father. And no, not because he kills a man eating shark. But because he is a family man, one devoted to his wife and sons, who isn’t absent in their lives. Well, for the first half of the movie anyway. But then when he is absent in the second half, that’s because he’s hunting down that man eating shark, to ensure the safety of his children and the town of Amity.

Right, time for me to look up the number of that counsellor again!

I highly recommend the Joe Coffin series as a terrific, character-driven vampire tale full of blood and sex and even some laughs. Visit Ken at his website, and say hi to Joe while you're there! 


Ken Preston said...

Thanks for having me, Dave. I enjoyed your interview questions immensely!

Unknown said...

You're welcome, Ken. It was an honor to have you here. You keep writing 'em, I'll keep reading 'em.