It’s always irritating when an author is clearly inspired by the work of another writer, but refuses to admit it. Thankfully, that’s not the approach that writer Steve Savile took when he did the following email interview about his admittedly Clive Barker-esque horror fantasy novel, Glass Town (hardcover, Kindle).
To start, what is Glass Town about?
Back in 1924, two brothers were in love with the same woman, Eleanor Raines. Eleanor was a promising young actress from the East End of London with the world at her feet. She disappeared during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s debut, Number 13, which itself is now lost. It was the crime of the age, capturing the imagination of the city: the beautiful actress never seen again, and the gangster who disappeared the same day.
Fast forward to the present day, generations have passed and the world has moved on. Everyone involved is long dead, and yet now this long-buried secret is bubbling back to the surface, and old obsessions threaten to tear the city apart.
Finding a twenty-four-year-old letter from one of the brothers claiming to have seen Eleanor that morning, and no matter that she’d been gone seventy years, she didn’t appear to have aged a day, Joshua Raines finds himself drawn into a place where these old hatreds and obsessions are still all too real. The unsolved case his new obsession, his search for the truth about what happened to Eleanor Raines taking him down the darkest of London’s alleys into a place of macabre beauty, of glittering celluloid and the silver screen, of illusion and deception, of impossibly old gangsters and the fiendish creatures they command, and most frighteningly of all, of genuine magic. It’s not cosy friendly magic, either, it’s corrupt and twisted, and has the ability to corrupt and twist its wielders.
Where did you get the original idea for Glass Town, and how different is the finish novel from that initial concept? Because the whole thing with Hitchcock makes it sound like it might be based on something that really happened.
Normally I find myself shrugging and saying, “you know, it’s a combination of things, I’m not really sure about the inciting moment, what planted the seed or how it developed into what it became.” You’ll notice I said, “normally.” This is the exception that proves the rule. We’re going back eight years now. I was in London with my family. We’re trapped in that purgatory known as the January sales. I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but that first week after Christmas when the shops discount everything you just spend a small fortune buying the week before transforms London into a writhing, seething mass of humanity. You can’t physically walk down the street, you have to shuffle. Now me, I hate shopping. I’m also getting to that point in life where I really can’t abide crowds either, so staring at the façade of Selfridges I told the family “You go in there, I’m going to grab a coffee,” I pointed at the weird green mermaid directly across the street. “Give me half an hour.” They know me. They gave me those precious thirty minutes. I ordered an overpriced, oversized drink and went down into the basement with only a pencil stub and a small red notebook I’d stuffed in my back pocket that morning, planning ahead.
I’ve got the notebook here; in those thirty minutes I wrote three and a half sides that were mainly questions. There were some names, then some made up words. In the middle of the third page I wrote MAGICIAN DAMIOLA and beside it in a box the words GLASS TOWN, with an explanation: “A district of London so named because it was the home to the first attempt at a British answer to Holly Wood…built by Ruben Glass.” The opening scenes are there in note form, unchanged. Even the creatures are there, the Rushes, the Dailies, the Reels, and ones I didn’t use, the Cuttings. They all drew their name from cinema. At this point I didn’t have a plan to use Hitchcock, though I knew Eleanor had been a young starlet, but most of the finished plot is actually there, formed in that thirty minutes of please god just let me hide down here and occupy myself and pretend the world doesn’t exist time.
I didn’t do anything with those notes for the longest time. I was working on something else for my agent, which we’d just sent out on submission…what five years ago now…and I thought, I know, I need to occupy myself with something so I’m not obsessing about that manuscript out in circulation so I’ll start Glass Town, just to see what I can get down. I figured I’d have two months with it being the run up to Christmas and the immediate aftermath, so I’d do something just for me, not expecting anyone else in the world would ever like it. I think I probably wrote about half of it in that time, or at least the first pass of, lots changed on a sentence level. One thing that happened was I wrote the letter from Isaiah’s point of view, and maybe a page or so into it, I thought, Oh, I know, I’ll just do a little research on lost movies, see what I can turn up…and right there was the Number 13, which was perfect, right down to the fact it was filmed on the streets I was already writing about. So all of that about Hitchcock’s movie being melted down for silver nitrate, that’s all true. My personal take is you need to get all of the little details right to give the book veracity, then you can get away with the whopping big lies like there being a stage magician who really could perform genuine magic…
There are elements of Glass Town that make me think it’s a horror novel, and others that make me think it’s more fantasy. How would you best describe it, genre-wise?
This shouldn’t make me smile as much as it does, but I think I got away with my own illusion here, convincing my editor Glass Town‘s a fantasy novel, though I suspect I used the words magical realism. But here’s the thing, my roots as a writer are very squarely in the horror genre. We’re not talking the creature feature horror of giant rats or crap infestations or demonic cars, but that kind of horror Clive Barker exploded onto the scene with back in the ’80s. Something visceral. Something human. The enemy within rather than the enemy without. It’s not some big cosmic nasty. The bad guy here is Seth Lockwood. He looks just like you and me. He acts like we might without the checks and balances of society to hold us to account. And not once does he consider himself to be the bad guy. He’s doing what he’s doing out of his own desperate obsession. He thinks it’s love, but it’s more like a need to win that has gone on and on to the point where it has lost all meaning.
There was a brilliant horror novel called The Count Of Eleven by Ramsey Campbell in which a guy gets a chain letter and it’s got the usual threat that if you don’t forward it to at least ten people it’s going to have dire consequences. The main character is one of the most horrific villains I’ve ever read purely because he is utterly mundane in his nature and manages to convince himself the writer of the original letter is making his life hell – and in the process becomes a serial killer. Seriously, the book is harrowing.
The first time I read the page proofs of Glass Town was the first time I actually read it as a reader, and midway through I posted on Facebook… Shit, I’ve written a horror novel…but it’s a mystery novel, it’s got a noir sensibility where the city itself is a big character in the book. This is the city I grew up in. This is the place I know better than anywhere else in the world. It’s also the place I’m watching crumble and fall apart these days, so the descriptions might be loving – at least a couple of times I’ve seen Glass Town described as a love letter to London, which it absolutely is – but they’re also almost gothic in their sense of decay beneath everything. And then it’s a fantasy novel in the vein of [Clive Barker’s] Weaveworld, which of course as a fantasy reader was my first real introduction to this “other” darker fantasy.
See, I always want to call what I do dark fantasy, but that got coopted by vampires and other stuff and took on an entirely different meaning. I loved what Barker used to call the Fantastique, or the Dark Fantastique. My first ever website was called Dark Fantastique; don’t click on it, since the domain lapsed it was snagged by a porn company. I have no idea what it is now.
What I don’t think it is is Urban Fantasy. I don’t think it fulfills any of those criterion, and yet that’s what I’ve seen it called more than anything else. But I think if you crack open the spine expecting Jim Butcher you’re going to be bitterly disappointed.
So, yeah, that’s a really long-winded way of saying I agree with you. I think I somehow conned St Martin’s in to publishing a horror novel. Don’t let my editor Pete read this….
I won’t. Now, Weston Ochse, the author of the SEAL Team 666 novels, said of Glass Town that, “fans of Clive Barker will eat this up….” And he’s not the only one to compare this book to Barker’s. But do you consider Clive Barker to be an influence on Glass Town?
Massively. Unconsciously and consciously. When Pete offered on the book I said, only slightly tongue in cheek, “I’ll accept, but only if you get me a Clive Barker blurb, as you guys had just bought The Scarlet Gospels.” Clive was one of those handful of writers who changed my entire perspective on story. I read Weaveworld when I was maybe 19…and it blew me away. I was captivated by the magic, the sheer audacity of the ideas, this hidden land in a carpet, these creatures in the Seerkind, all of it. I read it again a few Christmases ago, just because, and this time I was utterly mesmerized by the philosophies and the intelligence lurking in almost every paragraph. It was a completely different reading experience to the one the young me had had, and yet both the 19-year-old and the 44-year-old would have told you it was their favorite novel, for completely different reasons. How many books or writers can you say that about? That’s not to say I slavishly sat down attempting to “do a Barker” but there are a couple of scenes in there that I wrote thinking man, what would Clive do…? Without Clive, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today. I think we’d have been talking about a [Michael] Moorcock inspired cross-time cross-multiverse fantasy novel, or something like that, instead.
Aside from Barker, what other writers, or specific books, do you feel had an impact on Glass Town? And I mean Glass Town specifically; not your writing style as a whole.
We’re the sum of our parts. There are probably a thousand little bits from here or there that seeped into my subconscious whilst this thing was gestating. It’s hard to think of individual books, but there are a couple that played a role in setting the thought patterns going. Paul Auster is one of my favorite novelists, and there’s this one book that involves the main character sitting through screenings of this old black and white movie trying to learn its secrets. I remember I was probably halfway through that one when I wrote myself a note as soon as I got back to the hotel room in Egypt: “actress in old black and white movie kidnapped, body never found, try to solve crime using last surviving print?” And filed it away, never to be remembered until you just asked about it.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games you feel had a big influence on Glass Town?
My two dads — not the old TV show — were a much bigger influence on Glass Town than anything else.
First, as a kid, my biological father used to perform these cute little magic tricks involving an old plastic London Bobby’s helmet where he’d make me say the magic words, knock on it three times and close my eyes, then I’d lift up the helmet and there’d be a chocolate egg or my pocket money or something under there, like magic. And it must have been two or three years before I figured out he wasn’t actually a magician. But I loved the fact that growing up he really did give me a sense that anything was possible in the world, magical and otherwise.
Then there was my stepdad, who the book is dedicated to. He was there the day I came up with the idea, he listened as I described enthusiastically what I wanted to do, and was just a good, good guy. He died when I was about halfway through writing the book, and for about six months I couldn’t write a word. It wasn’t writers block, it was this emotional knot that had just tightened around my mind and I couldn’t think, there were no ideas, nothing. It took me a long time to work through it, and realize that I wasn’t actually empty. What happened then was the nature of the book changed for me. Suddenly it was important for me to get it right for him, and okay, right, here’s something I knew psychologically at the time, but haven’t put words on it until now… Cadmus Damiola, my magician, he was dead. He was always dead. He died in the ’20s and wasn’t going to play any part in the book apart from as a relic to be discovered, and perhaps one or two flashbacks. But I was sick of death. You can’t see me, but I’m smiling now, remembering this. I wrote a scene with a white haired old man who may have looked like a scruffy version of my stepdad sitting on a park bench outside of a cemetery where his body was buried inside, and realized in some small way I could perform one little bit of magic myself and bring him back, just within the pages of the book…
Yeah, that wasn’t the answer you were expecting, was it?
No, though it would’ve been weirder if you were influenced by that old TV show. Anyway, a lot of books I’ve read lately haven’t been stand-alone novels but are instead part of a series. And, in fact, you have your own series with the Ogmios Directive novels [Silver; Crucible, which was co-written by Steve Lockley; Solomon’s Seal, also with Lockley; Wargod, with Sean Ellis; Lucifer’s Machine, with Rick Chester; Shining Ones, with Richard Salter; and Argo with Ashley Knight]. Is Glass Town a stand-alone novel, or the first in a series, and why did you make it whatever you made it?
Glass Town is an absolutely self-contained novel. It’s all there. Everything you need in one place. It’s not a series in any traditional sense. But — you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you? — the setting of the Rothery and a couple of characters come back in Coldfall Wood, which takes one aspect of Glass Town and absolutely turns it on its head. It’s slated for hardback release in August, so not that long to wait in real terms. I figure if you’re going to do any sort of second book it needs to be radically different rather than more of the same, needs to ask new questions and go in new directions. So if you never read on, you’re covered, you’ve read Eleanor’s story and solved the mystery of Glass Town, the failing dweomers and all of those century old grudges. But if you pick up Coldfall Wood you’re going to meet a couple of familiar faces in the aftermath, becoming the heroes of their own story. Coldfall Wood is my love letter to the kind of mythological fantasy of the ’80s I grew up with. When I say this I’m thinking Alan Garner’s Elidor and The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, and John Gordon’s Giant Under The Snow. It’s quintessentially British. It’s about fairy circles and standing stones, Robin Goodfellow and antlered forest god…see what I mean about a radical shift? I think of both as standalone novels set in the same world, with a couple of overlapping characters… I call them Rothery stories in my head.
I’ve got one more I’d love to write after Coldfall Wood. But the beauty of something like this in terms of structure is, because they’re not an ongoing series, and each one isn’t predicated on the one before and needing to drag the same set of readers along, there’s no reason we couldn’t have a chat in a decade and have my answer be “Man, I can’t believe I’ve written a dozen novels in those old streets…”
The thing for me is I’m a bit of a magpie, attracted to shiny things. I find it really hard to say I’m going to write a trilogy, because by the midway point of the second book I’m thinking my god, can’t this be over, I want to do something different. So this idea of Rothery stories is a way of tricking my brain. There’s no reason I couldn’t write a straight crime novel in the setting, or something more coming of age a la Stephen King, because I’ve established plenty of interesting locations that all have their own secrets. I guess I kind of want to build my own Derry, giving myself room to explore as freely as possible.
So has there been any talk of adapting Glass Town into a movie, TV show, or video game?
I know it’s being shopped around at the moment, and about six hours ago my agent mailed to say we’ve had our first film rights nibble, but you know how this stuff goes, we could get nine or ten nibbles that go nowhere, or one that goes all the way over the line. Personally, I think it’d be a great self-contained mini-series. Netflix are you listening? I think it’s too dense to work in a 90-minute format and needs to unpack properly, and ten hours would allow you to run it in a couple of parallel lines, a sort of Peaky Blinders 1920s film/gangster world of stage magicians and actresses, and a modern search for Glass Town. I think modern TV methods are brilliant for this kind of tale, and streaming allows for a slower burn, taking one or two episodes to really lay the ground work and build a captivating narrative, before letting all hell break loose. It’s not like when I sold Monster Town to Sony — which got as far as two one-hour pilot scripts written by one of The Walking Dead writers — where everything had to leap off the page in the first few scenes because if we didn’t hook them in during episode one the network would have us off the air by episode three. Now we’re in this wonderful place that feels like a golden age of scripted drama, and we owe so much of it to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the like…
If Glass Town was to be made into a show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
Oh boy…okay…fantasy casting…shit that’s hard. Hmm…okay Josh is what about 27, got to be charismatic, if a bit lost… I think Eddie Redmayne [Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them] has done a fantastic job in everything I’ve seen him in, and he’s got the right kind of look, so let’s say him. Seth, our gangster, might be the same sort of age, but he’s much more worldly, and darker…I think Ezra Miller [Justice League] could pull off the darkness in him pretty well. Gary Oldman could do a great Damiola, I think, or William H. Macy, depending if it’s the ’20s or modern day. Eleanor, that’s the easiest. The woman in the red dress who stole the heart of those two brothers, Mia Wasikowska [The Kids Are All Right], she’s got something about her, there’s an element of magic when she’s on the screen that makes you think you know what, I’m seeing something special here…and that’s the core to Eleanor.
Finally, if someone enjoys Glass Town, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?
If we’re talking exclusively novels, I haven’t really done anything “like”‘ Glass Town before, those have almost exclusively been my short stories, so something like the short story collection Time’s Mistress, that was put out by Kevin J Anderson’s Wordfire Press a few years back might hit the right spot. Though if it was about getting to know me as a writer, I’d say Parallel Lines, the crime novel I put out last March with Titan. I’m immensely proud of that book. It’s a really tightly plotted bank heist novel with a major reversal about a third of the way through where it stops being about how to rob a bank and becomes how to get away with accidental homicide. The hero has ALS, and under the stress of the robbery — he’s trying to securing a safe financial future for his son who has Downs Syndrome — ends up killing someone in the bank. The tremors of the disease and a hair trigger don’t mix well. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s safe to say almost everyone in the bank has a reason to want the guy who died dead, so extreme circumstances can make for strange bedfellows. Like I said, I love it, I think it’s got a wickedly dark sense of humor, and some of my best writing to date.