Tales from the Dark Side: John Kenny talks to Sam Millar
Originally appeared in Albedo One #33 (2007)
Sam Millar is a relatively new voice in crime fiction. Born in Belfast in 1955, he has published three novels, Dark Souls, The Redemption Factory and The Darkness of Bones and an autobiography, On The Brinks. A winner of the Brian Moore Short Story Award for his short story ‘Rain’, in 1998, he has also been shortlisted for numerous other literary awards, including the Martin Healy Short Story Award and The Cork Literary Review Award. Two of his stories, ‘New York’ and the award-winning ‘Rain’ have both been performed and transmitted by BBC radio. He lives in Belfast.
John Kenny: Your work is very solidly in the crime genre. However, there’s a very strong leavening of horror throughout. Where would you say that influence has come from?
Sam Millar: I have always tried to incorporate the interplay of good and evil in my novels, mixing the genres of Gothic horror and crime. I believe that in every good person, there is an evil persona trying to break through the surface of so-called normality. Jekyll and Hyde being the perfect example of duality of man’s nature.
JK: Do you think human nature can change? Or to look at it from another angle, most people (even the Hitlers, Stalins, Saddam Husseins, etc.) look in the mirror and see a ‘good’ person. Very few people would think of themselves as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.
SM: Trying not to sound too preachy, good and evil are inherent in life, both dormant until maturity dictates. I believe that neither leave you, and that conscience becomes the ultimate guide once we come to that proverbial fork in the road, and manifests itself in our actions. The choice and decision of good and evil, ultimately rests with us. Unless you are a psychopath, change is possible, as there is no getting away from that itchy feeling that we have done something wrong – or ‘evil’. Likewise, the feeling that we have done something good, registers with our brain, giving us that feel-good sensation. Carl Jung summed it up perfectly when he wrote: ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’ (Psychology and Religion).
JK: These forks in the road and choices to be made seem to be the primary operators or devices in The Redemption Factory.
SM: When I wrote my memoir, On The Brinks, there were certain things not placed within its pages; things omitted for reasons personal and perhaps legal. I decided to write a novel, The Redemption Factory, where I could explore the possibility of forgiveness and hopefully redemption, from both perpetrator and victim, in a universe devoid of moral certainties. The novel, in itself, is semi-autobiographical and dissects human nature down to the bone, via self-imposed examination. It could easily have been the follow-up to On The Brinks, which was extremely cathartic for me.
JK: It’s interesting, your use of the phrase ‘dissects human nature down to the bone’, considering the fact that you set much of The Redemption Factory in an abattoir. Do you have experience of abattoirs or did you need to research it?
SM: As soon as I left school at the age of fifteen, I started working in the abattoir. It was an horrendous experience, but one I was able to use to my advantage, later on in writing The Redemption Factory. It is a place and experience I shall never forget. I recommend everyone to spend at least a day in an abattoir to see the real nature of humanity.
JK: Actually, I’m a vegetarian. But I did work as a child and teenager in my Dad’s fish and poultry shop at weekends during the 70s and, apart from cleaning out chickens and turkeys, gutting fish, etc., I did have occasion to see cattle and sheep being unloaded and herded into two nearby abattoirs. There’s no doubt in my mind that they knew they were not long for the world, hence the large quantities of shit everywhere. Anyway, the scenes in the abattoir, particularly the main character’s initiation rite, are quite cinematic in quality. Did you have a view to the possibility of the book being made into a movie when you were writing it or is this your natural approach to writing anyway?
SM: Yes. The animals know exactly what is going on. They can the smell the blood everywhere. I’ve watched cows leap great heights in the confine dens, jumping over the gates, in the feeble hope of escaping. Horrible. Anyway, in answer to your question: I do write in the hope of bringing the reader into the story by use of cinematic vignettes. I am a great believer in the power of the cinema, and try to integrate the two. Some writers might say that is selling out, but I have always found that attitude quite snobbish, to say the least. I want my books to reach the highest number of people, and find that writing as if sitting in a movie theatre works best for the type of genre I do.
JK: Have you had any luck in attracting interest from movie producers yet or is it early days for that kind of thing?
SM: Warner Brothers have acquired the rights to On The Brinks. The award-winning writer / director Cyrus Nowrasteh has finished the script and we are waiting to see if Warner will go with it. In all honesty, I’m not too happy with the script, or Cyrus’ politics (He did that hatchet job on Clinton in that documentary, The Path to 9/11), but I can hardly complain after getting paid from them. Marianne Gunn O’Connor, my agent, has shown two other manuscripts, as yet unpublished, to a few studios in America when she was over with Cecilia Ahern watching her movie being made. Lots of excellent feedback. But time will tell, as I’ve heard all that before.
JK: It’s exciting, I’d imagine, to have the possibility of a movie based on your work. Something like that can really propel you onto a different level in terms of sales for all your books. Also, as with all these things, movie rights, electronic rights, translations, etc., as well as the original books themselves, I guess it’s essential to have a good agent. When you wrote your first two books, Dark Souls and On the Brinks, did you do the rounds with publishers first or decide to try getting an agent from the beginning?
SM: Bizarrely as it might sound, I’ve only had an agent since last year. On The Brinks was picked up by Frank Weimann’s literary agency The Literary Group International in America after all the coverage over there. Warner picked it up less than 48 hours later after the recommendation from Frank. Even more strange is the fact that the book has never been published in America – and still isn’t, though widely available. So, I actually had no agent whatsoever, and still managed to get the right people interested in it! I had a dilemma with On The Brinks, initially. The major publishing houses in London were interested in it, but only if I were willing to cut out all references to the North in it, and focus entirely on the American part of the book. I was very tempted, as I always wanted to be a writer. It was a bit like the mafia making an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was difficult, but I rejected their requests and simply ploughed on for a couple of years until I found a publisher not forcing censorship on the book. Eventually, I discovered Wynkin deWorde, the Galway-based publisher and the rest as they say is history. I have now moved to Brandon and it was with them that The Redemption Factory found a publisher in America, and gained excellent reviews in the mainstream media and word of mouth on websites, particularly Gothic followers who have loved the book and have not been shy in promoting it. It was only last year I decided to try and get an agent, as I want to reach a wider readership for my books.
JK: Why do you think the UK publishers wanted the references to the North dropped?
SM: In a nutshell? Too political. I surmise that if the same thing were to happen now, with the agreement between the political parties in the North, the UK publishers would probably have gone a different route. Still, it infuriates me, this hypocrisy of certain publishers and editors imposing censorship instead of opposing it. We have enough book burners in this world without the writing fraternity taking it upon themselves to act in the same insane manner, if only subtler.
JK: By the way, Eoin Colfer had a similar experience regarding securing an agent, although not nearly as complex a situation regarding book publication. He had published several books (with the one publisher I think) before he even thought of getting an agent. When he did get an agent, his fortunes changed practically overnight. His agent seems to have secured all sorts of rights for him for most of his back catalogue of books. Do you see yourself tapping into the UK market at any stage in the future, as you build a name for yourself as a writer, and do you think this could be done through Brandon or a UK publisher?
SM: I am very familiar with what happened to Eoin Colfer as I spoke to Michael O’Brien from The O’Brien Press last year who wanted to published a couple of my books. Things did not work out, but he told me all about Eoin as he was the publisher who rejected his early stuff and told him to come back (years) later when the work had improved. Just goes to show you… Anyway, I am hoping for a breakthrough with my work, internationally and believe that if anyone can do it, then it will be Marianne Gunn. Brandon have placed my foot in the American market, so it is up to me to capitalise on that. In the meantime, I write.
JK: Speaking of capitalising on the foot in the door of the American market, it seems increasingly evident that the role of marketing a writer has transferred from the publisher to the writer. Years ago, the writer focused on writing the books and publishers had marketing departments or budgets set aside to push the work. The most a publisher will do now is send their sellers into the shops or wholesalers with their monthly/quarterly catalogue. I know there’s a spillover effect from the work your agent does to secure rights, but do you find the pressure is primarily on you to publicise your books?
SM: Most definitely! Gone are the days of PR firms getting their hands dirty with the writer’s ink. Ditto publishers. There are times when I will have to go to book festivals to publicise a new book, and even though it is great to meet the people buying your books, I would much rather be writing, as it takes me a while to get back into my stride. But that is the nature of the beast, and as a writer I can’t really moan too much. I’m constantly on the alert how to publicise my work, and sometime it feels like an uphill struggle. Luckily for me in Belfast, all the bookstores give plenty of space to my books, and always have me in for a signing. Word of mouth, is as ever, the greatest way of selling a book, but if the quality deteriorates, so will sales. I never get complacent or take anything for granted, as writing is quite fickle and am much appreciative of the fact that no one owes you a living. It’s entirely in your own hands. Thank God for the Internet!
JK: I take it you are now working full time as a writer. And given that you probably rely almost exclusively on royalties to make a living, do you find it a strain to fund attendance at conventions and festivals, etc. Generally, travel and accommodation costs are paid by the managers of the event, but it usually ends up still costing you something. Do you go to the publisher for any of these costs (after all, you’re promoting sales of ‘their’ book) or do you write it off against taxes and pray that the next royalty cheque comes in soon?
SM: Yes, I write full time. I can’t speak for any other writer, but financially it has always been a struggle. Yes, when I received my first payment from Warner it helped get me out of a deep hole, but unless you are one of the top ten writers, you shouldn’t ever give up the day job. (‘Unfortunately’ for me, I do a lot of ‘charity’ work in my community, i.e.: teaching classes to the homeless and doing cross-community projects for various schools in the North. I think most of them think as a writer, I don’t have a ‘real’ job and therefore have plenty of ‘free’ time on my hands. Free being the operative word!). No, I find publishers do not help with trips to book festivals, etc, even though it is a joint effort. Organisers mainly supply a hotel room for your stay plus some expenses to cover some of your cost. It can be very frustrating at times. If you didn’t love writing, you would almost certainly stay at home.
JK: You mentioned the Internet earlier. It seems there are more and more writers are resorting to more and more inventive ways to get their name out there. They not only design and maintain their own websites, but maintain a blog with their daily thoughts, observations, etc., encourage interaction with their readers via those blogs, link visitors to websites selling their books or even sell directly to readers. Do you see yourself going in this direction eventually?
SM: I think the Internet has become the most important outlet for writers. The sheer volume of potential readers/fans is astronomical. Most writers I know have their own site, though I have to be honest and state that it is something I have put off, simply because I have not had the time with all the projects I am currently involved in. I do intend to have one launched early next year. I already mentioned how ‘word of mouth’ through Gothic websites did wonders for The Redemption Factory in getting mainstream reviewers to have a look at it. Publishing has changed dramatically with the Internet, with books-on-demand and not forgetting the self-publishing angles now available to would-be writers. There are, obviously, pitfalls there as well, and it has to be added that there is a certain snobbishness from the writer fraternity that anyone who has to go the self-publishing or books-on-demand route, can not genuinely classify themselves as writers.
JK: Regarding the various projects you have on the go, you have the new novel The Darkness of Bones out since June I think, you mentioned two manuscripts your agent is plugging, and presumably, you’re working on a new book. Firstly, how’s The Darkness of Bones doing for you?
SM: The Darkness of Bones topped the bestsellers up here in the North, and received excellent reviews from as far a field as The Irish Times to The Belfast Telegraph. It has also generated great reviews in the States from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and The Village Voice. I have a new book from Brandon, titled Bloodstorm, coming out hopefully later this year. Brandon will also be publishing a collection of short stories in September. Another completed novel, Darklight, will hopefully come out after that. I have both a sequel and prequel planned for Darklight. My American publisher is in negotiation with Brandon for the American rights to On the Brinks, and both The Redemption Factory and The Darkness of Bones are to be translated into French by French publisher Fayard. I’m currently halfway through writing the follow up to Bloodstorm. I’m hoping to have that completed by early next year. A follow-up to On the Brinks is a possibility also. Other than that…
JK: My God, you are busy! I guess apart from the success of each individual book, the building of a body of published work will help to create a critical mass, so to speak, that should help you to make a real living at this game. And series books featuring the same character don’t hurt either.
SM: Yes, Darklight will have a continuous character, one I hope to build on over the next couple of years.