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An Interview with Graham Masterton

Today our guest interviewee is one of the country’s most prolific and best-selling authors. As well as being a magazine editor, he’s written more books than most people read in a lifetime and yet he still comes up with incredible plots. Please welcome the UK’s master of horror … Graham Masterton.



You were editor of Mayfair and UK Penthouse in the early 1970’s, two magazines with massive circulations. Did this kick-start your interest in writing?


I was writing stories from an early age. When I was eight years old my mother took me to see the Jules Verne movie ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ with Kirk Douglas playing a harpoonist who kills a giant squid. I was so excited by this that I rushed home and wrote my own novel about a harpoonist fighting a giant squid. I wrote it in a school exercise book and put a cardboard cover on it with a picture of the squid. I sold the book to my best friend for one penny, and that was my first royalty.


I kept on writing books like this, including humorous stories about a character rather like Mr Pickwick. His name was August Blank. Eventually, when I was about ten, I came across the short horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and I was enthralled by his stories about people being bricked up in walls and dwarves being strung up and set on fire. I started to write my own short horror stories and I would read them to my friends at school during breaktime. I met one of my friends many years later and he told me immediately that he hated me, because one of the stories had stopped him sleeping for a fortnight. It was about a man who had his head chopped off but still walked around singing ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’ out of his severed neck.

Image credit: Unplash


When I was 17 my parents moved because my stepfather had a new job. I had to leave the all-boys school where I was studying in the sixth form and go to a mixed school. From the first day, I forgot all about Shakespeare and Byron and Wordsworth and I became totally absorbed in talking to Jane and Michelle and Susan. After only two terms there, the headmaster realised that I wasn’t doing any serious work and expelled me.


I worked as a greengrocer for a while (and was very good at it!), but then I managed to get a job as a trainee reporter on the local paper. It was brilliant training because in those days the reporters on local papers were mainly journalists who had retired from national newspapers in London.


I did three years’ training, during which time I ran my own pop-music page and wrote humorous columns, as well as more serious reporting, like attending the scene at a railway station where a man had been cut in half by a train (and was still talking to the paramedics.)

Image credit: Unplash


After three years I tried without success to get a position on a national newspaper. They all said that I was too young. But I applied to Mayfair magazine and they gave me a job as deputy editor. Again, that was great training. I learned layout and typography and most importantly how to commission articles from outstanding writers. After an argument with the editor of Mayfair, I rang the editor of Penthouse magazine and of course he had seen my name on the Mayfair masthead and he gave me a job as deputy editor without any hesitation, at twice the money.


My experience interviewing the girls who appeared in both Mayfair and Penthouse gave me an insight into what women wanted when it came to sexual relationships, and that was when I wrote my first (best-selling) sex books. Unlike most sex books of the time, they were conversational rather than clinical, and I ended up writing 29 of them. But towards the end, my publisher said there were too many sex books on the market, and he did not want the last one that he had commissioned.


In between sex books, for my own amusement, I had written The Manitou, and so I sent him that instead. The rest is history!


Did you envisage The Manitou becoming such a successful series?


I can’t say I really thought how successful it might become. But I believe that one of the main reasons it was such a hit was because the threat was completely unusual – not a vampire or a werewolf or a zombie. And in all my horror stories I have tried to introduce some scary element that has rarely or never been used before. The cultures of so many different countries have so many fascinating demons and devils and things that go bump in the night.


You’ve received many awards, but which one gave you the greatest pleasure? Personally, I like the idea of the Polish dwarf!


Yes, I am very fond of my Polish dwarf, the Mastertonek on Kielbasa Street in Wroclaw. My favourite moments are when I walk past it and see people taking pictures of it, so that I can stop and say, ‘That’s me!’  I also like my Lifetime Achievement Award, the haunted house from the Horror Writers Association, and a kind of obelisk which I was recently awarded for the Polish edition of ‘The House in Phantom Park’ as best horror novel of 2023.

 

Well deserved! As well as horror, you’ve also written historical fiction, crime novels, and short story collections. Do you have a favourite amongst these genres and why?


I love writing historical fiction and I wrote many sagas when I was younger, such as Rich and Railroad and Maiden Voyage. But books like that take an enormous amount of time and effort to write because of the research that needs to be done.


I have enjoyed writing two historical crime novels set in the 18th century, Scarlet Widow and The Coven with a heroine who is the daughter of an apothecary so she is something of an early forensic detective. Again, though, the research was hugely time-consuming. What did people eat in the 18th century? Did women wear knickers?


I also have a very soft spot for the crime series which I have been writing about Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire of An Garda Síochana, the Irish police. I was inspired to start writing these thrillers when my late wife Wiescka and I were living in Cork, in the Republic of Ireland, and I realised that hardly any novels had been published with Cork as a setting, even though it is a fascinating city with its own slang and dialect. The series has been very successful and the twelfth Katie Maguire novel Pay Back The Devil will be published in October.

 

One to watch out for! When you write a novel, do you have the whole book mapped out, or do you let the story evolve as you write it? Is it the same for all the genres you write?


I have a rough idea of where the story is going to go, but as I write I find that as the characters develop they tend to lead the plot in new directions. I also tend to research as I go along, and often I will come across some new information that gives the story more authenticity and a different outcome from the one I first envisaged.



With more than eighty books, you’re incredibly prolific. How disciplined are you at writing and what’s your routine?


I have actually published over 150 books (sorry Graham. I got to 80 and lost count after that!). But it’s my job, so that’s hardly surprising. I get up every day, make myself a strong cup of espresso which I call a ‘horseshoe’ because I found out when I was writing ‘Railroad’ that the workers who laid the tracks across America wanted their coffee so strong that a horseshoe would float in it. Then I start writing – maybe for four or five hours depending on how the story is developing.

 

Where do you find your inspiration? And what is your latest book about?


Because I was trained as a newspaper reporter, I find inspiration almost everywhere. The latest book that I have published What Hides In the Cellar was partly inspired by the story of the Elephant Man. I am writing a new horror novel at the moment but if I told you what that is about, it would be a serious spoiler.

Image credit: Unplash


Being an author is a very intensive occupation and full of deadlines! What do you do to wind down and relieve the pressure?


I spend time with my friends and co-authors, in particular Dawn G Harris who co-wrote stories with me for my latest short story collection Days Of Utter Dread and Karolina Mogielska, although she lives in Poland so I don’t see enough of her! But both are extremely creative young women and their enthusiasm has helped turned the clock back for me and give me fresh inspiration.

 

How does traditional publishing differ from what it was to how it is now? How do you evolve to stay current?


Traditional publishing used to be quite formal. A well-spoken gentleman editor would take you out for lunch at some expensive restaurant in London or New York, and you would discuss your proposed story. You would then ask for a huge advance for it, and they would say yes.

These days, the editors are mostly bright young women and the deals are done by email (and through one’s agent, of course.)


Have you considered retiring, and if so what would you do? I can’t imagine you being inactive!


Writing is a disease from which you never recover. I have more ideas for novels of all the genres in which I write than I will ever be able to complete.


At the moment, I am co-authoring stories about Slavic demons with Karolina Mogielska, a Polish psychologist and writer. We have already published stories and chapbooks in the US, the UK, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, and we have more on the way. The first was Mr Nobody about an abusive husband who is punished by the Polish goddess Dziewanna. Then there was Boogeyboy about a malevolent boy who haunts Polish forests. Most recently The Dark Days of Christmas about an evil Icelandic goddess with a cannibalistic taste for children.

 

Graham, many thanks for spending the time with us and for giving an insight into what it is to be a bestselling author. Good luck with the new book, though I’m sure you won’t need it!


(Interview conducted by Richard Hardie)

 

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