An Interview With… David Turton

David Turton is an indie horror and science fiction author whose output over the last couple of years has been prolific. His debut novel The Malaise was published in December 2018, sandwiched between the publication of over 30 short stories on various platforms. His anthology of quick horror reads The Gull and Other Short Tales of Horror has received thousands of downloads. Yorkshireman David, who now lives in the North East of England,  was shortlisted for the Sunderland Short Story Award 2019 and is working on his next project, The Psychic of Sachsenhausen.

What was your first book and when did you write it?

My debut novel was The Malaise, a post-apocalyptic story set in the UK. It tells the story of a technologically-dependent world in the near future, which succumbs to an unexplained bout of violence and suicide, leaving only a handful of survivors who attempt to rebuild and find out what happened. I actually wrote the first draft of The Malaise in three months, between January and March 2017. The following months were spent writing short stories while I left the draft in a drawer (well, a folder on my laptop), refining my writing technique. Several edits later, I was on draft number four and sending it to publishers and agents. It was picked up by Cosmic Egg Books and I signed the contract in December 2018, almost a year after I first put pen to paper.

Do you normally plan your stories before you write them, or do you start with a general concept and see where it goes while writing?

Both. I tend to bullet point where I want the plot to go, usually using the notes feature on my phone. But I always feel that, to put it simply, writing a novel is 99% about actual writing. You can get sucked into rabbit holes of research, plot structure… basically lots of things that aren’t writing. I find the best way to get something written is to write and write and write. You can refine, edit and structure things later, but the only way to move a story forward is to write it.

Can you tell us something about your beginnings in the indie world?

It’s a difficult one to answer because, as an indie author I don’t know any other world. I feel that horror and science fiction are a good fit with indie publishers. It’s a niche in some respects, and readers don’t always pay too much credence to browsing the latest hardbacks in bookshops. Of course, I’d imagine the big publishers provide you with more firepower, get your paperbacks in all the national chains, which would be a dream for any indie author. But I’ve enjoyed the process of being involved with the cover, the marketing and PR, setting up book signings. I’m still learning about being an author, but I’ve enjoyed the journey so far.

Many horror creatures are tied to religion (vampires, ghosts, possessions, demons, devils). Do you find this to put a limit to horror creativity as a genre?

Not at all. Horror is the best genre of all, I’m not even debating that. It’s the only genre named after a human emotion for a start, which tells you a lot. It has roots in classic literature and film, in local cultures, mythology. It evokes excitement that no other fiction does.

Horror is also very telling of culture. When H.P. Lovecraft wrote horror in the early 20th century, it reflected people’s fear of the unknown; what could be lurking in the unexplored depths of the sea or the frozen mountains? The 1980s explored bleak futures, the end of the world, a place where technology could take over. More recently, zombies reflect our mindless consumerism and detachment from the world around us. Horror is more than just hiding behind a cushion or a monster under the bed. There are deep cultural reasons for finding something terrifying.

Does writing energise or exhaust you?

It depends on the mood I’m in. I’m an independent author, so I also work full time in a demanding role. Sometimes opening a laptop at the end of a busy day is difficult. Fitting writing in as a routine around family, social and work commitments is a constant challenge. But getting past that initial hurdle, it begins to give me more energy. There’s nothing better than getting into the flow of a novel or short story.

Do you have a writing space and, more generally, a writing routine?

It’s something I need to do better. I like a quiet space for writing, with lots of coffee, whether that’s at home or a café. In terms of routine, I drift in and out. When I wrote The Malaise, I wrote six days a week and set myself a target of 10,000 words each week, which I’d usually exceed. Now, I can’t remember how I was so disciplined to achieve that, but I’m always finding new ways to include writing into my schedule.

Do you find that being based in a town, rather than a village or a city, can influence a writer’s career?

I think it can influence your writing style and your network, but I think this is always positive. I live in Sunderland, where the writing community is thriving. But I’m also a member of online communities, where your location doesn’t matter a jot. Some of my best writing connections are from the US. Maybe writers from the bigger cities, like London have more on their doorstep, and more opportunity, but I’ve never really heard of anyone who claims that either way.

In terms of writing topics and style, you have to be influenced by your surroundings to some extent. I live by the sea and have created several stories that have a sinister seaside location!

Did you start by writing novels, or did you “evolve” into it after writing a lot of short stories?

That’s a great question and my own advice to others differs from my own experience. I began by writing a novel because that’s what I wanted to achieve. I read novels and that’s how I saw writing should be. However, after completing my first draft, I read some advice telling new authors to start with short stories. It’s excellent advice. You learn your craft quicker, you can be more creative. After beginning to write short stories, I began to read them and I’ve loved the short form of writing ever since.

Do you have a formal writing instruction (for example, a degree in creative writing)? Do you think that a formal instruction helps writing?

Another great question. I don’t have one for creative writing although I do have a degree in journalism and I’ve spent my entire career centred around the written word. I’ve toyed with the idea of a masters degree but I would worry that it’s a distraction from writing. I’ve learned so much from networks, from writing groups, from reading and, most of all, from constantly writing. I am a very academic writer so I wouldn’t rule it out, but I would also say it’s not essential to becoming a successful writer.

Have you ever killed a character you didn’t want to?

It’s usually the other way around – I usually plan to kill a character and then realise there’s more to come from that person. I’ve written short stories where the protagonist dies at the end which I didn’t necessarily plan on, but that’s the beauty of writing. Sometimes the story carries you along with it, not the other way around.

How do you choose your characters’ names and how important are the names of the characters in your stories?

This might be controversial, but I don’t see names as particularly important at all, and I don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about them. I use normal names that are around me, although people then often make the mistake of thinking a character with the same name as them actually represents them, which is never the case!

Was horror a prominent genre on your bookshelf growing up or has it surfaced as an adult?

It was always my favourite, but it began more with horror films. I’d watch the ‘Hammer Horror’ films from the 1960s as a young teenager in the 1990s and I just loved it. The first grown-up novel I ever read was The Shining by Stephen King and I’ve been reading his work ever since. When I began writing I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, who influenced King himself, and I loved the old-style of writing and the exploration of his mythos.

Is there anything you find bad for the horror genre? (For example, stigmas of being horror writers, people who thinks that horror just means slash & gore…?)

It does have a trashy reputation at times, but horror is multi-layered. Good horror is rarely one-dimensional, often incorporating humour, drama, and speculative fiction. There are different levels of horror for different tastes. Sometimes all you want to take in is a fast-paced slasher story with jumps and cheap scares. Other times you might want a sprawling post-apocalyptic thriller. Scratch below the surface of the horror genre and its multi-dimensional appeal is there for everyone to see.

What, if anything, is currently missing from the horror genre?

I think historical horror is something that needs exploring more. There’s nothing more frightening that the dark capabilities of human beings over the course of history. There have been acts of pure evil over the centuries, and these acts continue in present day. My current work-in-progress explores the experience of a psychic with telekinetic powers who finds himself in a concentration camp. The setting of real-life evil is going to be an interesting one to draw out. It’s rather like Carrie meets the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas if that makes sense. So I think drawing on the real horrors of the past is a bit of a gap in current horror.

A lot of good horror movements have arisen as a direct result of the sociopolitical climate. Considering the current state of the world, where do you see horror going in the next few years?

(We asked David this question before the COVID-19 outbreak.)

Again, real-life fears of the day always have a big impact on fictional horror. I’m not sure if everyone gets it yet, but the climate should be the thing that scares people most. Living in Britain, I’ve watched politicians and the public debate Brexit for over three years. The economy, boundaries and borders weigh heavily on people’s minds all of the time, but why? At some point, someone drew an imaginary line around some land and called it a country. One day, someone decided that something was of value and called it money. These things don’t really exist, do they? But what people should really fear is the future of the world beneath our feet. That’s real, and I think in the years to come, we’ll see horror fiction reflect that, as more and more people realise what’s happening.

If you could erase one horror cliché what would be your choice?

I suppose the sexism of helpless, naïve women, running scantily clad through a moonlit setting, but I’d hope that will have been erased without my help.

Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?

Never say never! I would struggle writing anything graphic relating to abuse, but it all depends on the context of why you’re telling the story, what it relates to and the bigger picture.

Does horror fiction perpetuate its own ghettoization?  For example, Julia Armfield’s collection Salt Slow has a cover that most horror fans would walk past in a book shop, and is one that probably is not marketed as horror; so does the genre’s obsession with horrific covers cause more harm than good? And how important is the cover when it comes down to selling the book?

I think it’s important. The cover is the window into the book. It should reflect what’s inside and grab your attention. I see too many indie and self-published authors who don’t spend enough time thinking about the cover. If people see a poorly designed or dull cover, they will assume that the content will follow suit.

You are a horror writer association member. Can you talk us through the process of becoming one? And do you think it is helpful for a writer to be a member or is merely a matter of prestige to become a member?

I am and I’m proud to be one. It’s a fantastic resource. I was mentored by their then-president, Lisa Morton who gave me some great feedback which made me a better writer. There are lots of resources available and I do think it gives you credibility as a writer. Horror writing is a difficult profession and it gives you a great community to support you. I’d wholeheartedly recommend joining. You’ll need to have a story published at a sale cost of at least $25 to join, but there are various levels. The form is simple to complete and the process takes no time at all.

Do you want to talk about your current project?

I’ve already mentioned this, and it’s something I’m immensely excited about. I’ve been to Berlin a couple of times and I’m fascinated by the city. Its vibrancy, its people and its turbulent history.  My novel The Psychic of Sachsenhausen follows two Norwegian orphans in the 1930s as they travel to Berlin for a better life. One  finds himself in the SS, rising up through the ranks to become a guard at Sachsenhauesn, a little-known but hugely important concentration camp for Nazi Germany, while the other – a boy with growing psychic abilities – finds himself a prisoner in the same camp. It fuses real-life historical evil with a fictional, supernatural element. I’m excited to finish it and show it to the world… watch this space!

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