I’m glad I had a chance to talk to Gareth Spark, a talented writer of gritty noir, whose stories will heat you right in the face. Some of them can be found on Near to the knuckle, some of them are accessible on the Crow Bait, his blog, where he also reviews his fellow writers’ work. He’s published Half past nothing, the story collection, and a book of poems, Rain in a dry land. His story appeared in Gloves off, A Collection Of Hard-Hitting Fiction.
Hi, Gareth – can you please introduce yourself?
I’m a 34 year old guy from the wilds of North East England who writes stories; the majority of those stories deal with crime, in some respect, and its consequences.
Your writing is hard and gritty and feels like you very well know the pain and suffering. Where do you get inspiration?
I think your writing grows as your understanding of the world grows and, in my experience, that understanding mainly comes through the slap down, the broken heart, the mistakes you make and have to live with. I’ve become a little cynical over the past ten years, especially in regard to people, their motives, capacity for betrayal and weaknesses, which is all good stuff for a writer working in Crime Fiction, but is probably why I no longer write poetry. My inspiration comes from an image usually, a crashed car, a girl lost in the snow, a burned out trailer, and the story evolves in explaining how that image came about. All stories have that mystery for me, and in writing them, I’m trying to uncover the truth. The characters are very real for me. In a more mundane sense, many of the stories come about from things I’ve heard over the years. I had a turbulent kind of life in the past.
You do know how to tell a story – the reader is caught with a first sentence, he feels with the character, you are a master of setting the mood and the language is realistic. How have you learned all that?
My writing evolved the way everyone’s should, through throwing down at least a million words over a decade and a half; unpublished novels, at least four of them, many more half finished novels, stories, poems, screenplays, at least one stage-play. You learn to write by writing and your style comes from the way you see the world, I think. You draw it out of the things you read, the writers whose work you love. You love them because something in their work echoes a need in yourself and if you want to express YOUR world, capture at least some small part of it, then you take the bits you love from those works and forge them into something uniquely your own. In a more practical sense, I think the study of screenwriting taught me some great lessons about the mechanics of storytelling and the actual craft; how to set up a scene, fix together a plot, with its reversals, reveals etc. The writing was already there, the style, but it was somewhat formless, as those very few people unfortunate enough to have read my unpublished MS can attest. Writing dialogue comes naturally to me. I probably sound mad, but it’s almost as though I am listening to the conversation and merely recording it. Not that I hear voices or anything, I aren’t that crazy…. at least not yet.
Have you ever thought of writing for film or TV? Tried it?
Writing for film is a constant preoccupation of mine. I love cinema, but, to be unromantic about it, writing a film is a completely collaborative experience and you have to be prepared to sacrifice at least a large part of your original vision. Definitely aspects of the story change inevitably, and I think I care too much or am too involved in anything I write to give it to somebody else to mess around with. The money is attractive, but I’m allergic to deadlines and probably hell to work with. Yet, in spite of all of the above, it’s still something in which I have an interest. I definitely recommend writing a few screenplays, or taking a screenwriting course, as a brilliant way to learn the mechanics of storytelling.
Who are your literary heroes?
There are writer’s I admire purely for the quality of their work and writers who I can properly term heroes because of the way they squared their vision and the integrity of their work against the demands of the world. In the former, I’d class Hemingway, whose work has been of enduring and incalculable value to me over the years, and whose vision and clarity and aesthetic accord so much with my own concerns, but who was, by all accounts, a terrible human being. Graham Greene too, a beautiful writer, whose work is such a brilliant dissection of human frailties, but whom one would never wish to emulate. In the second class I’d put Alan Moore, for his integrity, rugged individuality and refusal to compromise a remarkable vision. Mr. Frank Bill too, because he’s the real thing; a writer with a singular worldview and hard won style, whose repute and talent are fast becoming acknowledged by the literary establishment, but who still (as I do) works a forklift in a warehouse. When I first read ‘Crimes in Southern Indiana’, it changed the whole way I thought about my work and writing in general. I can honestly say it changed my life.
Have you ever taken a part at a writing workshop? What is your opinion of writing workshops?
I used to run a workshop, here in Whitby. It is not something I’d do again. A local writer, a guy named Chris Firth, set it up and I took over the running of it, but I wasn’t able to offer the criticism he could. I’d rather say nothing if somebody’s work is terrible, and I mean terrible, with no hope of redemption. I have that English thing of not wishing to offend anyone. The workshop works for some people, offering encouragement, critiques etc, but in my experience, people wanted to read their own work, then go. They weren’t interested in anyone else’s writing, which is a sure sign of a dilettante, an amateur. Perhaps it’s a Whitby thing….
We’ve seen mainly short stories – are there any longer pieces on the way in the future?
I’m currently working on a couple of longer pieces: Where the horses died, which is a novella detailing the fallout from a family feud, and an as yet to be named novel, which is very much in the ‘idea’ state. I do have a novel coming out soon from Zetabella Press called The Devil’s Waiting, which deals with a death among retired British gangsters on the Spanish coast.
How does social networking contribute to your writing and to you as a person, artist …?
Social Networking has transformed the role, responsibilities and career path of emerging writers. That might be a good thing, it might be terrible, it’s too early to say, but the landscape’s different. I’m of that generation started publishing in the last days of the photocopied chapbook, small run print ‘zine and reading circuit, when you paid a fortune for word-processors or electric typewriters and physically typed manuscripts, posted them with return mail, and waited weeks for a response from people you might never speak to and certainly knew nothing of. Now, in 2013, you can become a part of a global network of writers. There was a time you had to pack up, kick off your small town dust and head down to Paris, London, New York to be part of a scene, a movement, a literary generation, and I don’t think that’s true anymore. Moreover, the amount of talented writers I’ve discovered through Facebook, Twitter et al. is phenomenal. Serious talents like Sam Hawken, Joe Clifford, Isaac Kirkman, Darren Sant, Chris Leek, Paul Brazill, Court Merrigan, Todd Robinson, Laura Van den Berg, Dyer Wilk and many, many more. In that sense, these are golden times. On the other hand, you’re more open to negativity, bad reviews can become personal attacks. I guess the good will out, we’ll see.
What is – in your opinion – the role or a mission of a writer today? Is he merely a storyteller, an educator, a fighter …?
I think the way Art, be it writing, whatever, has been appropriated by the entertainment industry is an unfortunate by-product of late 20th Century Capitalism and the commodification of pretty much everything, even the imagination. I think a writer should above all remain true to whatever spirit, insight, daimon, or vision made them want to write in the first place, whatever urgent thing they’re beating against time and the world’s jaws to express. The writer isn’t such a commanding figure culturally as in previous eras, I don’t think anybody is; the greater complexity of the culture in 2013 renders the position of ‘voice of a generation’ redundant. The age of the rock star writer is over, so I think a writer’s role, today, is to maintain a healthy alternative to the hydra-headed corporate dragon, the archonic powers in the big publishers who deem a writer’s career over if his 2nd book sells a few hundred less than his first. It is to be part of a community of like-minded artists creating alternatives to the worldview we’re fed by those corporations, be it through the prism of speculative fiction, Brit Grit realism, Alt-Lit or American Pulp. As long as that alternative exists, then there’s a chance, do you know what I mean? Even if one tiny chapbook exists, then the alternative exists, and I think that’s what all Artists should try and do, to show people there’s another way; don’t allow Amazon or whomever define your imaginative life.
How important is writing to you? If you didn’t write, you would …?
Writing to me is my life, my real life. I’d write even if I knew nobody else would ever read it because in the act of creation you’re invoking something quite literally magical. From the first time I got something down on paper and captured the thing, the ineffable quality of, whatever it was (sunlight in a girl’s eyes probably) I wanted to draw down and bring to second life in the words before me, then I knew that’s what I wanted to do always. That’s what is most important to me, the small spark of flame when you get it right. Everything else is a bonus.
Publish or self-publish? Which works best for you?
I can only speak for myself, but I prefer traditional publishing; I’m not a businessman, marketing is and always will be an arcane mystery to me, one within which I have no interest. I’d much rather a publisher shoulder the commercial aspect of literature, the publicity, the design, etc. but that’s because of my laziness than some haughty Artistic disdain of Trade. I’ve seen some fantastic self-published work, plus it allows the publication of work the demands of the market would otherwise deny a place. However, there’s a reason you won’t ever read my first two novels, they were no good, and were rightly rejected, sometimes with great advice attached, by various publishers. Through that rejection and advice, I learned what worked and what did not, what makes a story any good. If I’d had the opportunity to rush them through Kindle Direct or Smashwords, as I undoubtedly would have, I’d have persisted in the belief that every word to fall from my pen was genius, learned absolutely nothing and probably produced nothing of value, but I’m only speaking of myself here, you understand.
What advice would you give to a young writer?
The best advice I ever got, aside all the general craft and trade and write everyday stuff, you hear when starting out, was “Are you writing stories people want to read?” For some reason that impressed me a great deal, and I realised that you do have to compromise a little, in terms of making your work something people will enjoy. Nobody wants to read my 120,000-word novel about a small town man’s quotidian life, because it’s dull, nothing happens, it has endless pages of description, nothing is at risk, nothing is to be lost or gained. Something HAS to happen in your story, there has to be a goal, there has to be some interest; will he make it? If he doesn’t make it, what will he lose? Is his wife in danger if he fails? His kid? There are a thousand ways to weave a story, but make it one people will invest in, believe in, and which will move them. If you’re honest, with yourself, with your talent and with your reader, then you’re on the right track.
Thank you very much, Gareth!