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Interviews

Blood Sisters: Graham Masterton Talks to Susan Condon

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© 23 November 2015.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Crime · Interviews ).

According to Peter James, Graham Masterton is “one of the most original and frightening storytellers of our time.” And who could disagree? Masterton was a bestselling horror writer who has now turned his talent to crimewriting. His experience of life in Cork, where he lived for five years, inspired the Kate Maguire series.

Blood Sisters is number five in the series:

DS Katie Maguire hunts a serial killer who is targeting nuns, in this gruesome new thriller set in Cork.

In a nursing home on the outskirts of Cork, an elderly nun lies dead. She has been suffocated. It looks like a mercy-killing – until another sister from the same convent is found viciously murdered, floating in the Glashaboy river.

The nuns were good women, doing God’s work. Why would anyone want to kill them? But then a child’s skull is unearthed in the garden of the nuns’ convent and DS Katie Maguire discovers a fifty year old secret that just might lead her to the killer … if the killer doesn’t find her first.

Masterton has written more than a hundred novels, across multiple genres, including horror, thrillers, historical sagas, sex manuals and crime fiction. Awards include a Special Edgar by Mystery Writers of America and the prestigious Prix Julia Verlanger in France.

I had heard that Masterton took less than nine months to write his 750 page second novel but I was amazed to find that his first novel, The Manitou, was written in a week! “I generally write quite fast because I was trained as a newspaper reporter from the age of 17 and then went on to become a magazine editor, so I am quite disciplined when it comes to writing and I have never had so-called “writers’ block”. I also imagine “writers’ block” to be some run-down apartment building where sad uninspired would-be writers sit in front of paraffin heaters and wrack their brains trying to think of something to put on paper.” Speaking of his second novel, Rich, he tells me that the reason it took much longer was “because it is a very lengthy historical saga and needed considerable research. By the time I wrote that, however,” he goes on to explain, “The Manitou had sold heaps of copies and movie rights had been sold, so I had the luxury of taking more time to write it.”

When I ask if the main character in The Manitou, Harry Erskine, was based on him, Masterton agrees. “Harry is loosely based on me, yes. He doesn’t take life too seriously and he also tells fortunes with Tarot cards. In a way, though, every character in every book I have ever written has been me, in a different way.” Of his favourite characters, he mentions, “Jim Rook, who is a teacher of remedial English at an American high school, but who also has supernatural insight and a very dry sense of humour. Another is John Dauphin, who has appeared in some of my Night Warriors series. He is overweight (which I hope I’m not!) but he has a passion for American fast food and especially Creole cooking like catfish and jambalaya and gumbo. But even Katie Maguire is me, in a way … or the me that I would be if I were a woman and had been promoted to superintendent in An Garda Siochana – much to the annoyance and resentment of most of my male colleagues. You have to think and feel like your characters to make them really come to life.”

It is fascinating to hear this master storyteller explain how he writes and he offers plenty of advice to writers currently struggling through plot lines. “Some days I will write only a couple of pages, other days anything up to ten. It depends on the scene involved and the amount of research necessary. Sometimes it’s worth taking it slowly because it gives your brain time to work out a complicated plot and to ask yourself if your characters would really do what you had originally planned. The last crime novel; about Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire that I have just finished – Buried – took about eight months. I had to do a lot of research into cigarette smuggling in the Republic, as well as Irish history and Garda politics. I love it, though, no matter how much or how little I complete in a day. All I will ever say is, real writers write something almost every day, if they can. They simply can’t help it!”

Graham MastertonIt’s not easy for Masterton to pinpoint exactly where his love of writing originated from but he certainly appears to have interesting ancestors to fuel his imagination. “My maternal great-grandfather was a Polish immigrant who became a theatrical impresario in Victorian England. Maybe there’s an element of showmanship in my character because of him. My maternal grandfather was a renowned scientist who was the first person to send photographs by wireless and worked on early television with John Logie Baird. He had a great sense of humour and also liked telling me extraordinary stories when I was little.” Ultimately, according to Masterton, “I believe that my writing comes out of an intense interest in other people – their motivations and their problems, a pleasure in entertaining – and also a mission to give people guidance and insight when they feel confused or unhappy or lost. I write because I have to; because it’s the way I express myself and I can share my thoughts and feelings with as many people as possible; and because I love it.” His love of books and the local library as a child led him to “frequent a small bookshop run by two elderly ladies who had a passion for books. I was becoming interested in the Beat writers in those days, like Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs, and they went to extraordinary lengths to get me the books I wanted to read.”

When I ask if he thinks writing poetry helps writers to master finding the perfect word, Masterton agrees emphatically, “Absolutely. I wrote masses of poetry when I was younger and still do. It’s not only finding the perfect word, it’s creating the perfect rhythm. A good sentence should be like a line from a song. Poetry is also brilliant training for expressing intense emotion in a very few words.”

With five collections of short stories published I wonder whether Masterton feels this might be a good place for new writers to start before attempting their first novel. “I would never deter new writers from having a go at writing their first novel,” he says. “Sometimes that first novel is the best because it comes from an idea that the writers have been developing and nurturing in the back of their mind for months or even years. (That’s why second novels are notoriously difficult to write, and usually never match up to the first!) However, writing is a craft and you have to know your craft. You have to have a good vocabulary, a good understanding of syntax, and a sense of rhythm. Poetry and short stories are a good way to start because they demand precision and accuracy of language, a very acute ear, and an understanding of how characters are developed and stories are structured. In a way, poetry and short stories are much less forgiving than full-length novels – there’s nowhere to hide. William Burroughs and I used to talk for hours about how to write a novel in which the writer’s own presence is unseen and unfelt … how to make readers feel that they were actually living in the novel rather than reading it. This involves invoking sounds and smells, and trying to feel when you’re writing that the story is not only happening on the page or screen in front of you, but all around you. It also involves simplicity – using accurate but familiar words that don’t bring the reader up with a jolt and destroy the suspension of disbelief. Don’t show off all the arcane words you know when you’re writing – you’re telling people a story, not compiling a dictionary. A good story is a good story, and most of all a good character is a good character. Readers write to me now and say ‘How could Katie have messed up her relationship with her boyfriend like that?’ And what makes that a huge compliment is that they almost believe that she’s real.”

With regard to research, no matter how much time and effort has gone into it, he advises, “don’t try and cram it all in and show off what you’ve discovered. It’s enough that you know it yourself when you’re writing – your background knowledge will give your story conviction. As far as novel-writing is concerned, it’s very much harder than most people imagine. It’s not necessary to map out the whole novel before you start: I don’t like to do that because characters develop and change during the course of the novel and new ideas come to me while I’m writing. Once you have created your characters and they are living and breathing they will do most of the work for you.” The norm for Masterton is to begin with a plot and create the characters to deal with it, but, “when I am writing a series of books about the same character, like Katie Maguire, I’ll go looking for a story to suit them. In Blood Sisters my latest Katie book, I combined the discovery of scores of dead horses on the seashore in County Mayo with the revelation that the bones of hundreds of dead babies had been found in a septic tank at the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. In real life these stories were not related, but I twisted them together to make each story contrast with the other and bring the two of them to life. So I usually have the Irish Examiner to thank for my plots!”

Masterton is keen to offer some pointers to new writers, most importantly the fact that, “no matter what genre you write in, try to be highly original. If you’re writing horror, don’t write about vampires or zombies or werewolves – think of something totally unusual, like I did with The Manitou.” He continues, “yet another: if you believe that what you have written is really good, never give up hope of publication, no matter how many rejections you get. Last year I wrote a crime novel, Scarlet Widow, set in the 18th century, and almost all of the major publishers turned up their noses at it. Last week my agent sold it at last, and to a very good publisher, for a very good advance.”

As Masterton had lived in a gothic Victorian mansion in Cork, I’m surprised that it hadn’t spurred him into writing a horror story there. He admits that he had already begun writing a short horror story set in a Traveller’s halting site in Ballyvolane, “quite sadly apt when you consider that soon after I started it there was that tragic fire at the halting site in Carrickmines. But that is what happens so often – reality will imitate fiction. Eleven years ago I had an idea for a disaster novel in which California was stricken by drought. Eventually I wrote Drought and it was published last year, but almost immediately afterwards California began to suffer a real drought, one of the worst in its recent history. So be careful what you write about – it might come true!”

Finally, I ask Masterton to predict what will be happening a year from now. “The next Katie Maguire book, Buried, will have been published (in February, 2016) and I hope to have finished the next one after that! Plus – who knows? A movie would be good, or a Katie TV series – I hope you’re reading this, acquisitions editor at RTE! Good luck to all of your writers and would-be writers. Never give up!”

(c) Susan Condon

About Blood Sisters

Katie Maguire hunts a serial killer targeting nuns in the gruesome new thriller from Graham Masterton.

In a nursing home on the outskirts of Cork, an elderly nun lies dead. She has been suffocated. It looks like a mercy-killing – until another sister from the same convent is found viciously murdered, floating in the Glashaboy river.

The nuns were good women, doing God’s work. Why would anyone want to kill them? But then a child’s skull is unearthed in the garden of the nuns’ convent, and DS Katie Maguire discovers a fifty year old secret that just might lead her to the killer… if the killer doesn’t find her first.

Blood Sisters is in shops now or pick up your copy online here!

Susan Condon is currently working on her second novel. Her short stories have won a number of competitions including the Jonathan Swift Award and she was longlisted for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition for the past four years. Publications include the Circle & Square Anthology, My Weekly, Flash Flood Journal, Ireland’s Own Anthology 2012 and South of the County: New Myths and Tales.

Blog: www.susancondon.wordpress.com
Twitter: @SusanCondon


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