An Interview with Ashley Stokes

Who is Ashley Stokes and what is GIGANTIC?

I’m a writer of long and short fiction who lives in the east of England but originally I’m from suburban Surrey. I’ve previously published a novel, a collection and about 30 uncollected stories. I’ve taught creative writing at universities and been a mentor, editor, copywriter and increasingly a ghost. I also edited the Unthology short fiction series and am Head of the Unthank School of Writing. GIGANTIC is my new novel, out now with Unsung Stories. It’s the story of Kevin Stubbs, a passionate believer in the North Surrey Gigantopithecus, a bigfoot style cryptid that supposedly exists in the London Borough of Sutton. The tale is told in the form of a dossier Kevin sends you to keep safe. It’s quite compact now but it did take ten years and many versions to realise itself.

I was a big fan of FORTEAN TIMES and I definitely did that thing where you start obsessively researching some strange phenomenon and concoct wild theories about it. Where did your interest in the weird and unexplained come from, and how did it lead to GIGANTIC, and GIT?

I think it all stems from being a child of the seventies, when there was a lot less media, TV and books had more authority and the weird and eerie seemed to be part of everyday life. I mean, newspapers like the Express would often run reports on UFO and bigfoot sightings as if they were substantiated events and alongside bog-standard journalism about interest rates or hovercraft. I was very into horror fiction in my early teens and I loved things like Arthur C. Clarke’s MYSTERIOUS WORLD. All this came back to me when I started to work on what was to become Gigantic. Initially, I was watching a documentary about bigfoot hunters in the USA late one night and just had a ‘what if’ moment. What if this sort of thing happened not just in the backwoods of America but my home town of Sutton in Surrey? The main characters in GIT came to me quite easily but I didn’t trust the overall idea and shelved it. A while later, there were reports in a few tabloids that a bigfoot had been sighted in Tunbridge Wells. I thought then that I might have been onto something after all.

Some of the references in GIGANTIC are connected to very specific aspects of culture, such as RAINBOW, a British children’s show. And a particular iteration of a character from RAINBOW. But also HELLBOY, Phil Collins (I think), and THE RATS by James Herbert. What did you want to achieve with these nods and call outs.

As soon as I started to write the story in earnest, Kevin, the protagonist, true believer and coiner of much of the novel’s slang and lore, just tapped into this reserve of British TV, horror and comics references that I had in the back of my mind. There is material in the book that explains why these things remain so vivid to Kevin, why for example he treats the episode of Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World on the Yeti and Bigfoot as if it’s a religious text. The what-if of the novel is not just what if there are bigfoot sightings in Sutton, but also what if that world of late-70s-early 80s exotica is actually true, what if that world is the real world? In this sense, I just wanted to create a dense and alternative culture to play with. I do thank everything I refer to in the back of the book.

A question often asked in interviews with writers is, —Are you a gardener or an architect? And I wonder if this is always a false dichotomy because most ideas come from some interplay between the two. That said, —Are you a gardener or an architect?

Yes, it’s definitely a false dichotomy. The true architect would lack all spontaneity and be the stiff provider of schtick. The true gardener would never finish anything. I actually prefer the terms bricklayer and watercolourist anyway. The former builds things slowly. The latter rushes ahead with the idea that they can make mess and sort it out later (which I suppose roughly fits with George R. R. Martin’s terminology here).

I am more bricklayer, I suppose. I normally have an idea, a glimpse or concept that I eventually commit to writing. I then put this through a planning process that includes adding random ideas and stimulants to it.

Ashley Stokes

However, when I actually start to write and the characters come to life, the story may change, especially the climax. I often have a kind of polished draft at the end of the writing, but if I don’t, it may take me five or six radical rewrites to realise. The overall story in GIGANTIC didn’t change much, although the ending and epilogue both became more streamlined and less complicated. But it did also take nine versions and ten years to get right, by far the most torturous and protracted struggle I’ve ever had with an idea.

How did writing GIGANTIC change you as a writer?

It changed everything for me, actually. Although I don’t necessarily think I can write a novel like it again, it freed up a lot of imaginative space for me and reconnected me with the thrill of stories and storytelling that I’d had as a child but had lost by my mid-thirties. It really did remind me of where I had come from and in doing that showed me a way forward. The world of ‘literary fiction’ is so stagnant and divisive at the moment, I am really happy to be writing weird horror. I’ll finish as I started, I suppose. I just love writing weird stories now when I had fallen out of love with writing and the scene.

You teach creative writing and help other writers as part of The Literary Consultancy. What is the best thing about teaching and mentoring? And how does your teaching and mentoring improve you as a writer?

The people you meet. That’s the best thing. I run a few workshops for the Unthank School of Writing and we have created a lively, supportive community where lots of different writers from all-over meet and interact, engage, become friends. Sometimes talking and thinking about fiction is just the most exciting and rewarding thing. I have critiqued over a thousand manuscripts by now, which means I have seen just about every pitfall that awaits the unwary and I have seen how any novel that achieves mass success spawns a million knock-offs and copies (so be yourself).

I have seen just about every pitfall that awaits the unwary

Ashley Stokes

In my first few years of teaching I did have to sit down and assess for myself what makes a good sentence, scene, story, voice etc. That was quite an education. My general philosophy is to work out one way or another what the writer wants to achieve and help them achieve it, rather than inflict my personal taste or critical agenda or an orthodoxy on the writing. In this way, it keeps me on my toes, makes me engage with things I might not otherwise.

Is there one structural or stylistic pitfall that you encounter a lot?

Yeah, the switching point-of-view thing. It’s highly disruptive and breaks the spell. I think a lot of beginners feel the reader needs to know things they don’t, or they don’t see a way around a stricture beyond using the narrator to explain.

You are also a ghost writer. How did you get into that and what are the challenges?

A while ago, my friend, the painter Nicolas Ruston asked me to do some copywriting for his branding agency. This led to a few more artsier commercial projects, after which I believed I could throw my voice and write for someone else. I did need to do something different and substantial as I had been running a publishing house for ten years that didn’t make any money. The pressure and shame of that was starting to drag me under. So, a move into ghost-writing was a positive thing and uses my unusual skillset. I really like it, too. The usual pitfalls of writing a book exist. There are expectations to be managed. Sometimes it’s hard to render what someone else has in his or her head as they would like it. Even so, it is a collaboration and enjoyable for that, especially if you are used to writing alone in your flat for weeks on end.

You wrote ‘Subtemple’, your story in BLACK STATIC #78/#79, in second-person and it’s very effective because of it. Could you talk a little bit about the process behind that one?

The second person is very underrated, I think. There was one of those Distracted Boyfriend memes on Twitter recently, with ‘First-Year Creative Writing Student’ eyeing up ‘Second Person Voice’ while the taken-aback ‘Past Perfect’ looks on. Lots of hacks and pundits were gaffawing at it. The funny thing is that I’ve taught creative writing for over twenty years and edited a thousand manuscripts and the only person I know who uses the second person is me. Using it is not a temptation that naturally comes for new writers. That honour belongs to the head-to-head, switching point of view that can seem like a Victorian headbutt and acts against focus and experience.

Anyway, yes, I like the second-person voice and I am surprised it isn’t used more in horror because it is so intimate and unstable. I know it supposedly hectors the reader by putting her in the position of the character, and that might be problematic in all sorts of scenarios and situations. We’d be talking here, though, of the second-person as used in a role-playing game or Fighting Fantasy Gamebook. I can’t say I haven’t used it like that.

My novel TOUCHING THE STARFISH had a choose-your-own-adventure story nested in it, but that is a very particular device. I usually use the second in one of two ways. Firstly, to direct the story from one character to another for claustrophobia and intensity (‘she is only talking to him’). In Two Drifters, which you can find on the Unsung Stories website, the narrator, Matlock, directs the story at a man he follows in the street who may or may not be a teacher who abused him at school.

The second person is a sexy voice, I think, whispery, beseeching, confidential.

Ashley Stokes

The second person can also address a divided self, be the voice of a person deeply unsure of themselves. This is the voice you find in eighties fiction like Jay McInerney’s BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, with its gakked-up narrator distancing himself from his actions. It’s also the voice used by the aimless and disabused mistress in Lorrie Moore’s HOW TO BE AN OTHER WOMAN. So, in ‘Subtemple’, the narrator, Angus Cole, a brewer with poor social skills and crippled by shyness has been alone for a year in a lockdown situation before he finds himself searching the pub where he works with his boss and only friend who has perhaps gone insane during the quarantine. That Cole only has himself to talk to makes it more tense, I hope, as he explores the cellars under the pub. The second person is a sexy voice, I think, whispery, beseeching, confidential. Much of the dislike of it is a kneejerk reaction from rule-takers.

How conscious are you of the radicalism in GIGANTIC, in terms of how it engages with the genre, maybe tonally, or structurally. It definitely does something very different.

I am aware that GIGANTIC is unusual, and do think each writer should aim to produce something no one else could write (which might cut against publishing orthodoxy to some degree and I admit that there is a could-should discussion before attempting any experiment). The novel is written as a dossier with bookending letters to the reader who is asked to act as custodian to Kevin’s secrets. Inside is a scientific report that’s cut with a much longer critique written by Kevin.

You’ve also, I suppose, got a contrast between a reasonable, analytical voice and Kevin’s voice that hyperventilates with resentment, slang, lore, references. And there is the unglamorous location, too. Maybe that makes me unfashionable rather than radical. Some of these things developed slowly. This novel had an anguished ten-year gestation and went through nine drafts. It did start as a short story with footnotes, a bit like, say, ‘A Short Story about a Short Film’ in THE SYLLABUS OF ERRORS, or ‘Fade to Black’, which is coming out in an anthology later in the year.

Kevin’s voice took over…

Ashley Stokes

Kevin’s voice took over, though, when I started to write his part, and he lopsided the whole story, so it was extended to a novella. Then the footnotes became alternating chapters and these had to align. Many things then were emphasised, de-emphasised, taken out, put back in as it reached novel length. If the resulting story is radical, it is because of this process, I think.

Is there a franchise you’d like to write for, or have written for as a ghostwriter?

I’ve not written for any franchises, though I am open to offers always. I’m quite intrigued that Noah Hawley is working on an ALIEN TV series for FX (I loved his LEGION) and going back to the original truckers in space feel. I’d be excited to work on something like that.

And would you like to work in other forms like comics or video games?

I think it’s easy to think you can do anything and then stretch yourself too thin, so although I love comics and graphic novels and owe a lot to 2000AD, eighties Marvel and Alan Moore, I don’t think I’d be better than any of the brilliant comics writers who have wired themselves to that medium. Ditto video games. I’m really not a big enough fan. In the last twenty years I’ve only played a few strategy games like CIVILIZATIONS and CRUSADER KINGS, and I was obsessed with the BORDERLANDS games for a while, but I also try not to play games as they’re a time-sink or mental bolt hole when I ought to be out and about. I’d like to try my hand at a screenplay, though. I am tempted to adapt a few of my new stories, and I’d love to see a GIGANTIC film.

You’ve told me that your desert island niche category would be The Fall albums. I was trying to think about the first time I’d heard The Fall, or about The Fall, and then I remembered that Marc Riley was a member for a while and I used to listen to Mark and Lard a lot in the 1990s and so I must have heard them then. Did you listen to a lot of radio growing up?

Yeah, I did, but weirdly, seeing as I am a classic eighties indie kid, I never got into John Peel or anything like that. I was really into the music press, Melody Maker in particular, and that got me into lots of bands.

When did you first hear The Fall? And what do they mean to you?

I am quite well-known now as a Fall obsessive and I do play them a lot still. But, my love for them was quite a slow-burning thing. Unusually, my first encounter with them was visual. I was struck by the Claus Castenskiold artwork on the cover of Perverted by Language in my local library. So, I borrowed it but the music was a bit dense for me (I must have been thirteen or something). The opening track, Eat Yerself Fitter pissed me off and I didn’t bother after that. I still don’t love that track but the rest of the LP is genius.

…the reimagining and sensationalising of your home patch is something I always like to try.

Ashley Stokes

When I went to university I met quite a lot of Fall fans and was introduced to a wider range of the songs. I started to love the melding of angular music and lyrics that wax from the sublime to the ridiculous, cut up street slang with Lovecraftian texty-tracty language, the overly formal and the seemingly random. It was also pretty aggressive and strange, qualities I can admire even if I don’t always like them. Slowly, as I became a bit of a completist during the 90s, I started to realise that, whatever anyone else tells you, The Fall sound like everyday life in England. There is probably something in the way Mark E. Smith managed to conjure a mythic and haunted Manchester or Prestwich or Salford or whatever, where the ordinary and the fantastic exist side by side – see the brilliant sleeve art for City Hobgoblins – that inspires some tones in GIGANTIC. This juxtaposing of the specific and the eerie, as well as the reimagining and sensationalising of your home patch is something I always like to try.

I was thinking about it and I don’t think I’d ever listened properly to The Fall before you emailed. One of the bands I’ve loved who are closest to The Fall is probably Sonic Youth, and I happened upon a great Sonic Youth cover of ‘Psycho Mafia’.

Yes, Sonic Youth did a Peel Session where they just covered The Fall. Mark E Smith wasn’t very impressed if I remember correctly.

Your first choice is HEX ENDUCTION HOUR, an album which sounds from the title that it’ll need a fair bit of decoding. Why is this one at the top of the list?

Well, it’s called Hex Enduction Hour for a start. Mark E. Smith has terrific authority on this record, which I think he lost later on, especially as a storyteller rather than a shouty garage band singer. It does take you into this murky haunted world, esp on songs like ‘Winter’ and ‘Iceland’. I always think that it sounds like the world has just started to tip down towards its end. There’s a real Ragnarok feel to it The film of reality bursts and crackles. Sometimes there’s a great deal of space, like in Hip Priest. Sometimes it’s like being locked in a cellar (Who Makes the Nazis). Also, the extended version is a useful timer for a chilli con carne. You can make a chilli in the time it takes to listen to Hex.

The second album on your list is PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE. Tell me a bit about it.

After Hex, The Fall made ROOM TO LIVE, which was largely improvised and the band didn’t play together on it. It wasn’t much loved, but the next one, PBL was a standout, a bit of a return to the heights. It’s also the first LP that features Brix, her guitar and voice adding an extra dimension. The third song Garden is an epic and really strange. The two songs at the end are definitely esoteric and otherworldly. It’s all angular, spiky and rhythmic yet somehow stately and elegant. Great cover, too. The song titles often seem like they could be short story titles from Ballard or Philip K Dick: Neighbourhood of Infinity, Tempo House, Hexen Definitive.

John Peel chose ‘Eat Y’self Fitter’ as one of his Desert Island Discs. If you were down to choosing a single track off each album, would that be one of your choices?

Actually no. As I mention above, it’s my least favourite song on PBL, though it is obviously still better than a lot of things that try really hard to make you like them. I do like the line, ‘stick the cretin on the number three lathe,’ though.

The third album is GROTESQUE. What makes this one special?

The relentless wordiness of the tract-like songs, The NWRA and C’n’C S’mithering alongside the rattle and crack of Container Drivers (‘roll on, roll on, roll off’).

In ‘How I Wrote “Elastic Man”’ there seems to be this relentless engagement with a writer being grilled on his work, and on how he created it. As a creative writing tutor, how do you balance scrutinising a work and its workings with an attitude of well, –Let it be. And do you also find yourself looking at your own work differently because you are someone who tutors creative writing?

As a tutor, you can go over and over someone else’s work and sort of scour it of its joy or potential if you’re too harsh or gimlet-eyed. I probably have done that in the past, when I was younger and felt I had something to prove. However, you really do need to work out where the writer is, at what stage. With a first draft, you might want to concentrate on the story because getting that right is the priority. If it’s the final draft, you might want to go out on comma patrol. This is the same for my own work. I know when to be permissive and I know when to worry. I also understand process, that it will not be right until it has gone through a process. It’s all the same thing, really.

GROTESQUE has a self-interview on it. If you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask yourself about GIGANTIC, and how would you answer?

1. Have I seen it? No, but I think it’s seen me.

2. Is Kevin me? He wasn’t, but the method-acting I had to indulge in to realize Kevin had a deleterious effect on my mental health and now some days I wake up in a hedgerow wearing nothing but night-vision goggles and clutching a parabolic microphone. FACT.

3. Is Sutton a real place or did I make it up? It’s made-up, FACT.

There are a lot of Suttons, made up or otherwise, and the only one that I think I’ve been to is Sutton Coldfield, and most likely only the railway station. And maybe that’s not true. Writing GIGANTIC, how important to you was the geography of England, or Britain? And can you imagine the same story transported elsewhere?

The Sutton thing is crucial, I think. I could have set it in Norwich, where I live, but it wouldn’t be the same. Writing about Sutton did feel risky and exotic and I suppose there’s a kind of salvage exercise to it, a gathering up of the leftovers and remains of a dead world, a place that was once your bounds, your doom.

The fourth album on your desert island is BEND SINISTER. What’s the story behind that one?

BEND SINISTER is a slightly later Fall album than the others on my list, late eighties. It has some lighter, jauntier moments, but it also has some really dense, dark and brooding songs on it, R.O.D and Gross Chapel, British Grenadiers in particular. They’re pretty dramatic. Yeah, and it’s named after a Nabokov novel, too.

One review of Vladimir Nabokov’s BEND SINISTER said it was ‘at once impressive, powerful and oddly exasperating’, and I think that’s an amazing review which Nabokov was probably really happy with. And a lot of the music The Fall put out could be at some intersection of ‘impressive’, ‘powerful’, and ‘oddly exasperating’.

Yes, the body of work over, what forty years, forms one of the greatest things in British art, but yes, choppy, difficult, hard-to-get-your-head-around-sometimes. Quite exasperating too is that Mark E. Smith dedicated himself so totally to destroying himself when he could easily still be here and tearing things up with us.

How do you feel mass culture is assaulting the individual, here and now? Is art and culture making us more free, or are we being driven into silos in terms of what we consume?

Mass culture has always assaulted the individual, and people with niche or underground tastes have always been driven into silos. It’s just now that the assault is more sustained and bombastic and the silos too shallow and narrow and close to collapse.

Do you think Mark E. Smith felt that his silo was shrinking and that he didn’t have a place?

It’s an interesting point. During the last third of the gruppe’s career, they were quite a cult. The records didn’t sell and they hadn’t since the mid 90s when there had been a falling-off of quality. But since MES died in 2018, there seems to have been a renaissance and upsurge in interest. On the Hanley brothers’ Oh Brother podcast, Graham Duff—who wrote a screenplay with MES—said that after the BBC made a retrospective documentary about The Fall, MES felt like he had made it after all and that last run of albums was him uncompromisingly doing what he liked. I tend there is a place but there never was one he was comfortable for long.

You retweeted an interview with Donna Tartt a couple of weeks ago, and in that Tartt talks about a time when Becky Swift, founder of The Literary Consultancy, told her, —You must never, ever get involved in social media, it dumbs down everything, it will cut into your writing and reading time in ways you can’t imagine. Promise me you’ll never touch it. What is your relationship with social media, and Twitter in particular?

…more often than not now using Twitter is like waking up and straightaway consulting a Ouija board

Ashley Stokes

I don’t do a lot on social media, to be honest. I rarely comment on politics or social matters. I do post stuff about art and tarot fairly regularly but I don’t spend much time arguing the toss with morons anymore. Nor do I feel the need to boast of my progressive opinions or enlightenment or expect a medal pinned on me for not being a Nazi. I suppose I want to use social media for fun and if it’s not fun, I’ll keep a low profile. I have had some good things happen to me on Twitter, but more often than not now it’s like waking up and straightaway consulting a Ouija board. It swirls with ghosts and demons and things you can’t unsee or unread.

I like that. And I think you were posting tarot cards to Twitter recently. Was that for a project?

No. They’re part of my creative practice. I have always liked the mysterious designs and always had a pack somewhere. A while back I started to use them in the planning of a story called TheValidations that wouldn’t get off the ground. I’ve been using them in my planning ever since. The Validations is coming out in Nightscript 7 next month.

Okay, could you introduce your fifth choice, ‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall’?

‘The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall’ starts with Lay of the Land which borrows the Planet People’s ‘lay lay lay’ chant from the John Mills Quatermass series, which was a bit of a touchstone for me. It also features the lines, ‘I leave the city We’ll leave this city / Hit a quick coach, take the town in Surrey / There’s no-one here but crooks and death / Kerb-crawlers, of the worst order’, which takes us back to GIGANTIC, or maybe more appropriately the story ‘I Remember Nothing in The Syllabus of Errors’ in which north Surrey was reimagined as a Third Reich protectorate separated by temporal and geographical accident. ‘Wonderful and Frightening’ is what we want from art. ‘Wonderful and Frightening’ is time, life and history. ‘Wonderful and Frightening’ is us.

These are big themes, and big ideas. They’re not necessarily comfortable to engage with. And because the form is the way it is, it provokes the reader or listener to think and maybe to develop ideas they didn’t have before. Who are some of the writers you feel are writing interesting and/or challenging and/or provocative work today?

Nathan Ballingrad and Laird Barron’s short fiction has been very inspiring to me re what I am doing now, both just being great literary horror writers. In England, Georgina Bruce has written some very distinct stories. I loved her haunted house story Kuibiko. Catriona Ward conjures brilliant voices. Gary Budden and Gareth E Rees are doing great things reimagining England for us.There is a lot of good weird fiction about at the minute.

There’s a video about the recording of the second album and about how Mark E. Smith’s lyrics would be different take to take. And on ‘Draygo’s Guilt’ John Leckie took the vocals from one and the band from another take, and just layered them, and it worked (on headphones it is beautifully discordant; no idea how it would sound in a big room, but you could dance to it). When you’re writing, do you sometimes find yourself circling back to older drafts and taking stuff which works, or is the process more linear?

I am procedurally linear with short fiction but quite choppy with novels and I have been known to dither over what to keep in or take out. In GIGANTIC, there was always a tension as to whether to shed light on why Kevin is so fixated on the gigantopithecus. Sometimes I elucidated. Sometimes I just let him be. There is a line in one the early Hannibal Lector novels where he says something along the lines of, ‘don’t try to explain me. I just happened.’ Of course, HANNIBAL is now much weaker and boring for being explained in all those prequels and sequels. I kind of wanted that mystery for Kev, but it made him hard to access or sympathise with and I ended up reintroducing certain flashbacks and passages.

2021 is in many ways both a wonderful and frightening place. What is giving you hope amongst all the bad news forever in the news?

I feel quite optimistic about what I am doing, but nothing in the world this year has made me hopeful for England, the Earth or the human race. I’ll keep wracking my mind and get back to you on that one.

Last question, what do people really need to know about GIGANTIC?

More people need to realise that the greatest mystery of all time is being solved and unravelled in Sutton as we speak and only Kevin Stubbs can explain it to you. He undertook the greatest and most arduous expedition in history so you don’t have to. The least you can do is read his story and let him make up your mind for you.

It is something they need to do. FACT.

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