By Jacqueline Grima
Humanity Hallows recently had the pleasure of interviewing writer, film-maker and radio presenter, Shaun Stafford. Here’s what Shaun had to say:
You describe yourself as a writer of ‘transgressive fiction’. Can you tell us more about what that means?
Transgressive fiction features lead characters who don’t feel compelled to stay within the boundaries of societal norms. In reality, these types of people do exist. They could be your work colleague with an unhealthy fascination in porn, your next door neighbour who has a good job but shoots up heroin of an evening, or the guy up the street who burgles houses under cover of darkness. Generally, mainstream fiction doesn’t have lead characters like this.
So, your novels have covered subjects such as underage sex, incest and alcoholism. Do you think there is a place for the ‘taboo’ in contemporary fiction?
Definitely. People are fascinated by individuals who dare to step over the line. You only have to turn on Sky TV, and in amongst the myriad documentaries about the monsters of Nazi Germany you’ll find documentaries about serial killers, rapists, drug addicts and child molesters. But I do think there is a subtle difference between using a taboo topic in a novel for lurid, sensationalist purposes, and allowing the reader to get into the mind of some unsavoury character as they follow his or her journey through life.
Do you deliberately set out to ‘shock’ your readers?
I think in general I try not to deliberately ‘shock’ readers. When my lead characters do something, I like to think that the reader will nod their head and say, “Yeah, that’s a bit wrong, but I kind of expected him to do that.” If you build your character up, make him believable, then the reader already has an idea of their behaviour and knows what to expect. My novel Besotted was about a writer dying of cancer who has an unhealthy relationship with a teenage girl, but it wasn’t so much a case of shocking the reader by having him leap straight into bed with her. The story developed as the character’s disease evolved – essentially, my lead character drove the plot. I suppose that for my novel Maggie’s Children there were a couple of scenes specifically designed to stun the reader, but given the subject matter, I don’t think any of it was particularly unexpected. My novel Putrid Underbelly had descriptions of videos and photos featured on Internet gore websites (I had to research those in order to write the book), but again given the lead character’s morbid fascination with such things, none of the descriptions were unwarranted.
Tell us about your writing routine.
I find it difficult to write at home. There are too many distractions. The internet is a great tool for research, but then there are emails, Facebook notifications, music, computer games, all of which conspire to suck the creativity from me. I write in my local pub – or indeed in any pub, so long as it’s not too busy. I find a quiet table, away from people, and I start to write, slowly imbibing alcohol at the same time. The pub provides inspiration and ideas. There was a scene in Besotted where the lead character, Benjamin Beerenwinkel, spies two transsexuals in the pub, and ends up having a chat with them. That came about because as I was sitting in my village pub, tapping away on the keyboard, a pair of transsexuals tottered in on their high heels and had a couple of drinks. If I’d been writing at home, that anecdote wouldn’t have featured in the book, and I’d have lost an interesting chapter which helped to further develop my character. Nowadays, I mostly write in longhand, using cheap pens and notebooks. Of course, it means that I have to type up the manuscript, but I can type 60wpm so it’s not too onerous a task. I write in longhand for two reasons. Firstly, a couple of years ago I was mugged. I ended up with a broken jaw and concussion, and my laptop bag was stolen. As well as the health and financial repercussions, I lost a lot of work. I feel that muggers would be less inclined to rob someone for a notebook and some cheap pens. Secondly, I find that writing longhand is more honest. You can see the first draft taking shape, evolving, on the page. I’m also less inclined to “pad out” chapters because the word count isn’t quite right. I work to the length of the story as opposed to that magical number of words you need for a chapter or a novel. When I’m in the pub writing, on a good night I can write 2,500 words. On a bad night, it might only be 600 words. But the key thing is to just fling everything down on the page. Even if I know that the sentence I’m writing is a bit rubbish because I can’t think of the right words, I don’t allow myself to be bogged down too much with the technical qualities of anything in the first draft. A first draft should only be about getting the story finished. It can be – and should be – tidied up and improved in subsequent drafts.
Who are your literary influences?
Influences, as opposed to guilty pleasures? I think Steinbeck influenced me in a big way insomuch as he crafted exquisite characters and allowed them to take the reader on a journey, irrespective of plot. Take a book such as Cannery Row, where nothing much happens but you turn the pages because you want to read about the characters. It made me think, particularly for the transgressive stuff that I write, that developing characters, making them believable, is far more important than anything else. I was also massively influenced by Chuck Palahniuk after reading Fight Club. I suppose he inspired my earlier writing style, though I like to think that I’ve developed my own voice now. As a writer, I think Bukowski also has to be mentioned because in addition to his sparse writing style having an influence, he showed me that being a boorish, drunken lout does not preclude one from writing novels and making money. I’d also have to give Martin Amis an honorary mention. As well as being something of a transgressive writer, he does his best to write about working class characters, in spite of the fact that he comes from a different social level.
You have had the option of following the traditional publishing route but now choose to self-publish, can you tell us why?
Money. Traditional publishing, particularly for a first-time novelist, is great, and it’s awesome to know that you’ve been “accepted”, but unless your book is a bestseller, you’re still going to have to work in a “real” job. The benefit of having a mainstream publisher publishing your work is that it will receive some marketing. But the differences between their royalty rates compared to the 70% royalties you can make from the Kindle for self-publishing are huge. And lots of writers will get a one-book deal and then nothing else. Self-publishing allows you to have full creative control over your work. But of course, that can bring its own problems, because an independent editor can reign you in when your writing becomes self-indulgent. There are pros and cons to both types of publishing, but there does seem to be a lot of downward snobbery from traditionally published writers when talking about self-publishing.
Some of your short stories have been turned into films. Were you involved in the production? Are you involved in any other film projects?
Yeah, I had a lot of input in the making of those short films, but whilst it was very interesting seeing a story I’d written being acted out on the screen, they’re not the most professional of films. I’d call it an interesting aside, rather than a profitable endeavour. Both of the stories, ‘The Morning After’ and ‘The Worst Crime’, dealt with characters caught up in the legal system. They probably worked better as bitter tales rather than as films. I have recently worked as an editor on a feature film, Dishonoured. It’s a challenging and interesting job, but nowhere near as enjoyable as writing.
Shaun’s alternative history novel Nach Schema X is available now on Amazon