Steven Savile is author of the newly released Glass Town, a fantastical novel where a movie actress, who mysteriously disappeared in 1924, is sighted looking unaged and seemingly alive in Old Spitalfields Market some seventy years later. Protagonist Joshua Raines becomes obsessed with solving the impossible sighting – even as it takes him to “a world 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.”
Steven graciously chatted with us about his devotion to writing, what movies out-do their literary counterparts and how authenticity as a writer will take you to the top. Enjoy!
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Somehow, I turned 48 recently. I’m not entirely sure how that happened. Last time I looked I was about 35. The time before that, 27. Talk about going by in a blur. I was born in a hospital that no longer exists, and lived most of my life displaced as my parents divorced when I was very young, then moved to opposite ends of the country. It was always a case of wherever I was someone else wasn’t. I was pretty good at school, without ever really excelling, and had a fierce sense of justice. One of my abiding memories is of the Deputy Headmaster, who we used to call Peanut because of the shape of his head, dragging me off the football field at half time when I had scored a couple of goals, because in his mind the rugby team needed me. Now I hated rugby with a passion. The only reason I was any good at it was mortal dread. Those big lumbering goons would come lurching towards me and I’d run for my life. I loved football (soccer to you) above and beyond anything, and I was good. Captain of my House team (think Harry Potter), and one of the mainstays of the First XI. I was so aggrieved at this bullying by Peanut that the next day I quit all the sports teams and signed up to volunteer at the old age pensioners home instead, and never took part in another game for the school.
I guess it’s fair to say I’ve got a stubborn streak – but that’s only ever helped me when it came to the writing. I mean this isn’t a career for the faint-hearted. I went through years of what promised to be highs and ended up being lows, to the extent that if I was able to go back to the young me and whisper in his ear, it’d probably be enough to put him off for life and lead to a nice comfortable job as an accountant in the city. Want a few examples? I sold my first novel when I was 20, to a major publishing house in the UK, right around the time Thomas Harris wrote Silence of the Lambs and changed the face of horror and Sting went on his rainforest crusade. During those 18 months paper prices went through the roof and the price of paperback books spiralled from 49p to 4.99 (with a couple of incremental steps that only lasted a few months each). What this meant, suddenly, was that publishers couldn’t take a risk on books that weren’t going to be immediate successes, but would rather be a stepping stone on the build of a gradual career. I was let go along with about forty other first time novelists. Then my agent lost faith and dumped me. I was maybe 21 at the time, so much for being Les Enfant Terrible. Something like five years passed and I couldn’t sell a thing. Then I got a lucky break, meeting a writer who introduced me to his editor, and got invited to write a couple of pre-teen romance books for them. I think I knocked it out of the park. They loved them. Then they cancelled the line and the books never came out. They felt sorry for me, so they asked me to write a guide to the internet. This was 1996. We’re talking basic, basic stuff. I delivered it three weeks later. They loved it and told me they intended to release it in 18 months… I was pulling my hair out. 18 months in computing terms back then was like the shift from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance all the way into the Industrial Revolution. Netscape and graphics came along within about 3 months rendering everything in the book obsolete. It was cancelled.
Seeing a pattern here?
They came back with another apology and the invitation to write a kids’ adaptation to the new release of Return of the Jedi and a fact book to go along with Jurassic Park II. In 1998 those ended up being my first published books, close to a decade after I’d first turned that ill-fated novel in to my agent.
And after that, battered by endless streams of small press publishing ‘buying’ books and stories then going bankrupt, moving agents and moving agents again, I’d pretty much given up and despaired of going anywhere despite my love of telling stories. There were a couple of important steps that followed to change things – the first, I wrote what I thought was going to be my last story, Bury My Heart at the Garrick, a story of real magic and Harry Houdini. I submitted it to the Writers of the Future contest, but missed the deadline for the quarter by a day, so went into the next set of entrants, and had to wait over a year to find out I’d only gone and won it. That earned a red carpet trip to Hollywood that was absolutely insane, but rather than cementing my love of writing convinced me I didn’t belong. I was the imposter in the talent pool. I stopped writing for almost four years. What makes that final crisis of faith more damning is that I was, perhaps, 30 or 40 pages away from finishing my first big ambitious fantasy novel, moving over from horror where I’d been plying my trade (and which is why some of my stuff even now can run quite dark in places).
I never finished that novel.
What I did though, in 2006 was use the opening hundred or so pages as an audition piece with Games Workshop to write for their Warhammer world, and got the gig. I ended up writing six novels for them in 18 months. This from a guy who had previously managed maybe 2-3 short stories a year. It nearly killed me. I developed serious back problems. I finished the last book standing up because I couldn’t actually sit in a chair. From there, I bartered those books into any jobs going. I’d emigrated to Sweden, and been teaching for almost a decade, despite having burned out in the classroom after maybe seven years, so was living the last three on borrowed time, battling depression and exhaustion and trying to grasp the idea that somehow my life had gone so far off the rails when this all happened. I got lucky. And the harder I worked the luckier I got, writing novels for tv shows like Primeval, Stargate, Doctor Who, and stuff, and then becoming one of the several Alex Archer’s out there writing the Rogue Angel series for Harlequin. I ghosted a few books. I even wrote the books of one of the biggest hip hop artists of the 80s, Prodigy from Mobb Deep. But what I really wanted to do was transition from this hand-to-mouth style existence chasing work and having the financial stability I needed to take a year to write my own book, something that was uniquely my thing, not me interpreting the creations of others. It took time, but it’s finally here.
How long did it take to finish your book? How has it changed since you first began writing it?
Deceptive question, really. In terms of the first idea until it hitting the shelves, maybe seven years. In terms of in the chair time, probably nine months. The thing is, those nine months weren’t sequential. Just as I was getting into my stride and the world was opening up (circa 50,000 words in) my dad died. It wasn’t a long illness, but it was brutal, and watching him reduced day by day before our eyes pretty much broke me. I didn’t write a word for getting on for seven months.
The biggest single change along the way was Cadmus Damiola, the magus Josh encounters outside the cemetery on his hunt for Eleanor. In all of my original notes and plans Damiola was dead. He didn’t make it out of 1924. But after dad died I was done with the whole notion of important people being gone, so I brought him back. He ended up being a massive part of the novel, and then, just to spite me ended up becoming a massive part of my next novel, which I delivered to my editor a few weeks ago.
I always imagined it as this family feud spanning a century, but never intended for Josh to actually find Glass Town. It’s funny how things change once you’re inside them.
Which three books would you bring with you to a deserted island?
I hate you. Can I just say that? Three? God. Erm… Elidor, by Alan Garner, because it was the first book that dared suggest there might, just might, be magic in the world. Weaveworld, by Clive Barker, because it’s the book that made me want to be a novelist, not a journalist and changed the focus on my writing from horror to the fantastic. It’s a reason I’d rail against the description of Glass Town as an Urban Fantasy. It isn’t. Not in the way so many of the real Urban Fantasies are. It’s a novel of the fantastic, absolutely, and it takes place in an urban environment, but it owes more to the gothic novels of a century and more ago, and the genre-shredding world building of Barker than anything else. Third? Sleeping in Flame by Jonathan Carroll, because it is just about perfection on the page. There were so many others I wanted to list here. So many. Three. Grumble.
In your opinion, has there ever been a movie adaption better than the original book?
My favourite thing in the world used to be going to the cinema. Now, I almost never go. It’s full of chatter and cellphone lights and distractions that make it almost impossible to fall completely under the spell of the screen. And I’d have to say yes, lots of times. Blade Runner is considerably better than Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. As good as Silence of the Lambs is, Jonathan Demme’s take on it is the kind of thing that worms its way into your mind and becomes this iconic part of cultural and eventually everyday life. I think the Godfather is damned near impossible to beat in terms of iconic status, and it just so happens I also think it’s better than Puzo’s novel. I think Shawshank’s better than Stephen King’s Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption. I think Peter Jackson’s massive Lord of the Rings trilogy outstrips the source material. Flight Club, Psycho, Jaws, Die Hard… I guess I should turn my library card in at the door?
Which three authors would you invite to a dinner party and why?
David Gemmell, David Eddings and Robert Holdstock. One, because it would mean they were all still alive and as a reader I miss them so much. Two, because these three men pretty much defined my life of words. They gave me so much enjoyment I’d just love to sit and listen to them talk, because we never stop learning and these guys had so much to teach in terms of story, character, adventure, imagination, all of it. And three, because it would give me a chance to say how much their work meant to me. I never had that chance face-to-face.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Be the best you you can be. Anyone can be derivative and chase a trend, trying to copy what’s hot. But only you can tell those stories that are uniquely you. Don’t be afraid of your voice or worry about sounding like Stephen King or Lee Child or whoever you love. Embrace the you you’ve spend years becoming.
What is your favorite thing that you have received in the mail?
This time I’m going to cheat, and say two things, but they’re from the same book. The first was a letter from a girl who was probably seven or eight at the time, and it was a drawing of the dinosaur that featured in my novel Shadow of the Jaguar, beautifully coloured in, along with a really sweet letter about how it was her favourite book ever. It was the kind of letter that melts your heart. The second was a letter from a woman whose mum had died the day after she bought the book, and she’d read it three times, cover to cover, between her mum’s death and her funeral and had written to me to thank me for helping her get through the toughest time in her life. Every time I get a shitty review or someone moans about how the book wasn’t this or wasn’t that, I remind myself that it doesn’t matter, because once, just once, there was someone out there going through hell and something I wrote made their life just a little bit more bearable for a few days. It puts everything into perspective. That letter was the greatest gift I could ever receive as a writer because it gave meaning to what I do.
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