We Are Here is set in modern-day New York City, but incorporates a fictional sub-world within it. Is it easy for you to create worlds within what we know to be reality?
To me it doesn’t seem like that much of a creation really, because I’m pretty convinced that most of us feel that way a lot of the time. We agree that reality works, and the way that science tells us it works is quite rigid, when actually I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a superstition, or believe that they know the phone is going to ring before it does or feel that they’ve felt a presence or a ghost – I think these are all things that most of us feel. We wouldn’t necessarily say ‘I believe in ghosts’, but walking down the street alone late at night, you may believe in something. So rather than me saying this is supernatural or beyond reality, I’m just saying I’m opening the doors a little bit wider. I think books should reflect how people behave and what they actually believe.
Do you think sci fi and fantasy writers have more imagination than straight fiction writers?
I don’t think they really need to have more of an imagination, because if you write a story or a novel set in the present day, with none of that extra stuff, you’re still making up a lot, which requires an imagination. But what happens with – and I don’t like this phrase – 'genre fiction' is that people allow themselves extra colours. So I think it’s actually more a case of having the courage to allow yourself to have a bit more freedom.
Part of that is you have to seduce the reader to believe what you’re saying; a lot of people are very scared or resistant to be told stories that seem unreal so you’ve got to work extra hard. Maybe it’s not more creativity, but a degree of passion to actually convince people.
This is your tenth novel – when did you know you wanted to write?
I read a lot as a child and my father was an academic who wrote non-fiction books, so there was someone in the house who disappeared for long periods and then produced a book. So I knew it was quite possible; it didn’t seem an insuperable task. I remember writing about ten pages on something called the Tumbles, who were small creatures who lived on a particular park. But I saw my father’s life and thought it looked quite cool in the sense that because he was interested in his subject he was very engaged all the time. If you’re going to spend most of your life working you might as well be engaged with it. And then I started reading the type of fiction that made me think, 'actually, this is what I want to do'.
Your writing is almost genre-less, it has a bit of everything. Is this something you feel strongly about?
There was a novel I loved a few years ago called Mailman by J Robert Lennon, which is completely uncategorisable. Sometimes it’s exactly what you want – people sit in front of soap operas or buy a multi-part detective novel series becaue they want to sit in front of the same thing – and that’s great because I do that too. But a story shouldn’t just be the same-old-same-old that takes you round again; it’s got to engage and make you a part of it.
With the recent news of James Herbert’s death, were you a fan of his?
He wasn’t a huge influence on me but I think Jim was one of those guys who made certain things possible. Books like The Fog showed that British writers could write these big, balls-out, commercial, thriller/horror books and really engage people. I love words and I love trying to construct good sentences. I’m fascinated by the history of words, but I’m convinced that reading a book should be a very easy experience. The job of a novel, particularly in commercial fiction, is to grab you in the first sentence and not let you go until the last sentence, and writers like Stephen King and Jim Herbert and so on were some of the first people who did this and said 'we’re going to do decent stuff, but we’re going to drag you through by the scruff of your neck'. People like him and Terry Pratchett – we’re on the verge of losing some of our great genre writers.
Jim Herbert was huge in the 1970s and 80s, which was when horror had its hey day. Do you think sci-fi has had its hey day?
Stephen King opened those doors and publishing did what it sometimes does, which is publish everything that it can, and the bubble burst. Horror has always been cyclic – it goes up and down and people who live in the genre know that that’s the case. At the moment it’s in a big down, except in the cinema of course. And that’s one of the interesting things about genre fiction – there’s almost a stigma attached to going to the book store, but people will go and watch Paranormal Activity. Science fiction is different, I think it has a more level playing field because it has a very committed readership, but horror tends to be a reflection of what’s going on in society.
Do you ever get scared by your own writing?
No. I’m constantly surprised by people who tweet me or email me saying 'I couldn’t go to sleep last night'. I guess because you’ve created it you’re safe from it. Horror writers are some of the cuddliest people you’ll ever meet, but I haven’t had a nightmare in 15 years.
We Are Here by Michael Marshall is out now, published by Orion.