Joe Mynhardt: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, High school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?
Graham Masterton: My father was an Army officer in the Royal Engineers and because my mother didn’t want to follow him to his various postings abroad and have me and my sister educated at Army schools, I didn’t see too much of him when I was young. Eventually he found himself a girlfriend in Antwerp and my parents divorced when I was seven years old. My mother found herself quite a handsome new husband but he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for four years and was given to irrational bursts of temper. I was always very self-contained and took life in my stride, spending most of my time at home in my room writing stories and drawing comics.
I was able to visit my father almost every school holiday so at a time when very few British children had ever travelled abroad I spent a lot of time in Germany and was free to explore whichever city my father had been posted to.
I was sent first to a private primary school run by two elderly women (Miss Polly and Miss Harpole). I didn’t like it at all, especially that day Nigel McAllister pooed his pants and stunk out the classroom. I didn’t like the teachers and I didn’t like the food. I used to hide the mashed potato in the pockets of my shorts.
Eventually I was sent to a local state primary school which was rough and tough (some of the boys even wore hobnailed boots). But I was extremely lucky in having one inspired teacher Mr Royal who gave me an extraordinary education, especially in English and drama.
My secondary school was a famous public school south of London called Whitgift. The education was superb and it was only in later life that I found out that my father had barely managed to scrape up enough money to pay the fees. It was a school that gave boys a great deal of self-confidence (perhaps too much, in my case!) and also honed my speaking voice. I still speak in what British people call a “BBC” accent – in other words, not aristocratic but very well enunciated. That has proved to be a great asset when speaking to audiences, although the clarity of my diction has sometimes got me into trouble when making disparaging remarks about other people in crowded pubs (such as, “God, don’t like yours much” when a man comes in with an ugly wife) because my voice carries so far.
When I reached the age of 16 I had to leave Whitgift because my stepfather had got a job with an engineering company in Crawley, in Sussex, which was one of several new towns built after the war to house people who had been bombed out of their homes in London. I went to a grammar school and started to take my A-level exams, a three-year course which would prepare me for university. However I discovered two important life-changing things. One of these was the Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. The other was girls. Whitgift had been an all-boys school, but now I found myself sitting in classrooms with some very pretty young women. Suddenly I lost all interest in Shakespeare and Byron and Dickens, and after two terms I was expelled.
Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?
Graham Masterton: Being thrown out of school was probably the defining moment of my life. I got a job in a fruit-and-vegetable shop and I was so good at it that after three weeks the company offered to make me the manager. I can still twirl a paper bag of apples like a professional.
At the same time, though, I went to West Sussex College of Art where my sister was training to be an illustrator. I took an entrance test there with the vague idea that I might be a graphic designer and I was offered a place.
However I was then told that the local paper had a vacancy for a trainee reporter. I had a choice: reporter or graphic designer. What swayed me more than anything else was that, as a reporter, I would be out and about all day, unsupervised, and I would be paid from week one. As an art student, I would have to study unpaid for three years, and still be dependent on my mother and stepfather.
I loved being a reporter from the very first day. Just walking into the top floor newsroom with nine manual typewriters hammering away like a rivet shop and phones constantly ringing and the air so thick with cigarette smoke that you could barely breathe.
But on that first day I learned a critical lesson. My very first assignment was to interview a woman whose husband had won a local cycling trophy. Pretty major story! I cycled to her house and knocked on the door and she invited me in and gave me a cup of tea and told me all about her husband’s cycling achievements, which I duly jotted down in my very first notebook. As I was about to leave, however, she said, very quietly: “He beats me.”
I said, “What?”
“Yes,” she said. “Almost every day. No matter what I say it’s always wrong. No matter what I do it’s always wrong. I cook him a meal and he throws it on to the kitchen floor. I buy a dress and he rips it apart and tells me it’s hideous. Then he hits me, although he’s always careful not to bruise my face.”
I sat and listened to this woman for over an hour, asking her very few questions but very searching questions, such as what was her sex life like, and did she think her husband was having an affair with somebody else? I was remembering my own parents, of course.
When I cycled away from that house I felt as if Heaven had opened and a great ray of light was shining down on me. It was a Damascene moment. I had discovered that as a sympathetic stranger I could ask people the most penetrating questions about their personal lives and they would tell me anything and everything…things that they would never tell their closest friends or any members of their family. That revelation changed my writing for the rest of my life.
Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?
Graham Masterton: After a few months on the Crawley Observer—because I was the only teenager on the staff—I was given my own “pop music” page… I reviewed records, I wrote potted biographies of rock stars, and I covered all of the local pop concerts. I also had my own humorous column “Private Ear.” I was given a byline for this page, and so from early on I was used to seeing my name in print.
After four years training as a reporter I tried to get a job on a London newspaper, but again and again I was turned down as being too young. “Go up and work on a Northern evening paper for a few years, and then try again,” said the news editor of The Daily Telegraph.
Up North? To Manchester, or Liverpool, or Wolverhampton? There was not a hope in hell that I was going to do that. Fortunately a girl reporter from my rival local paper had seen a man on the train reading a new man’s magazine Mayfair, a British rival to Playboy and Penthouse. I wrote an incredibly arrogant letter to them, saying that I was one of the best writers in existence. In fact the letter was so arrogant that they granted me an interview just to see what I was like. They hired me immediately as deputy editor, although to be truthful the staff turned out to be the publisher, the editor, me, a secretary, and the publisher’s German Shepherd. All of the design and photography was farmed out.
Again, though, my experience as a reporter came into play. Every month I had to interview the centre-spread girl of the month, and so I would go to the studios where they were being photographed. Any other men there would be goggling at the girls’ bare breasts, but I spent time talking to them about why they had wanted to become models, what they wanted out of their lives, and what their relationships were like with their boyfriends.
The torrent of intimate information that came out of them gave me the inspiration to devise a regular four-page feature called Quest, which purported to be verbatim conversations about sex and sexual problems. Although I wrote it all myself, it was entirely based on the true facts that these girls had told me…what they wanted sexually, what excited them and what disappointed them.
I was asked by a London publisher to write two sex books in this same question-and-answer style, and although they were published under the pseudonym Edward Thorne, it still meant that I had my first books in print.
After a row with the editor, I left Mayfair and immediately got a job as deputy editor of Penthouse—because of course by then Bob Guccione the publisher had seen from my name on the Mayfair masthead and knew who I was. Penthouse had originated in Britain but at that time it was just starting up in New York, so I became a frequent visitor to their offices in Manhattan.
It was there that I met the publisher of Warner Paperback Library who suggested I write a candid, conversational sex book. Apart from The Joy of Sex almost all sex instruction books in those days were very medical. That was how I came to write How A Woman Loves To Be Loved…but again I used a nom-de-plume, Angel Smith.
Angel Smith was pictured on the jacket in a wet shirt and she was blonde and gorgeous. The book sold really well and Angel was inundated with fan mail. One day, however, she was sent a postal package which felt squishy and inside was a condom and a letter. The letter said, “Dear Angel…I love you, I love you, I love you! I have rolled this condom on to myself and rolled it off again and I hope you will accept it as a token of my passion for you.”
You have never seen a condom fly across a room as fast as that one did. And I swore from that day that I would write all of my sex books under my own name. The next was How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed, published by Signet, and it sold half a million copies in nine months. It is still available on Kindle, and was a huge seller in Poland, where it was the first Western sex book published there since World War Two. You can still buy it there as Magia Seksu—Magic Sex.
After the first six or seven sex books, the bottom fell out of the market, so to speak. My then publishers Pinnacle said that they didn’t want any more but I reminded them that they still had a contract pending with me. As a substitute for How To Turn Yourself On I sent them a short horror novel which I had written to amuse myself in between sex books. It was a combination of my wife Wiescka’s pregnancy with our first baby and an idea I had gleaned from a cowboy book I had read when I was about 10 years old, about Native Americans believing that everything had a spirit inside it—animals, rocks, trees, lakes. These spirits they called manitous.
The Manitou sold half a million copies in six months and was the beginning of my career as a horror writer. Of course I was greatly gratified by its reception, but I had been seeing my name in print since I was 17 years old and so that aspect of it was not tremendously exciting. I have always regarded writing as my job but of course if you’re going to be successful as a writer your name has to be well known. You have to sell yourself. It would be no good baking brilliant cakes or writing brilliant songs and then never promoting them.
I am my own most severe critic and I hope that my writing improves with every novel. I am currently writing a grisly series of crime novels set in Cork, in Ireland, where Wiescka and I lived for five years, and they have reached number 1 in America and Canada and Australia and the UK. They seem to be satisfying my horror readers as much as the wider market of crime enthusiasts. But I am relentless on honing my technique so that every novel is not only more horrifying and more original, but more believable.
Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?
Graham Masterton: Not very much. I think my family find it faintly amusing, but that’s about all. They understand that I consider writing to be my everyday work. However I have made some very good friends through being an author. I have a young woman friend in Warsaw, Kinga. I met her at a fantasy convention in Krakow four years ago, and we still see each other regularly, but she works in computers and I am far more impressed by her intellect than she is by mine. I have also been using my experience to help a very talented young woman writer Dawn Harris to write her first novel, a supernatural story about a girl with a very unusual talent. That has been very fulfilling, both as a friendship and as a writing project.
Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?
Graham Masterton: Jules Verne to start with. Nothing like fighting a giant calamari! Then Edgar Allan Poe who inspired me to write short horror stories to read to my friends. After that, William Burroughs, whose novel The Naked Lunch impressed me instantly with its bravery, its humour, and its writing technique. William and I corresponded for some years before he eventually moved to London, where we became friends. I commissioned him to write a series of articles for Mayfair which we called The Burroughs Academy, and we spent hours discussing how to write in such a way that readers would feel totally involved in the story they were reading. I wrote a novella in conjunction with William—Rules of Duel—which is extremely avant-garde in its style, but which was published by Telos Books after languishing in my drawer for almost forty years. These days, I am not influenced by any other authors because for two reasons I never read fiction. One—I don’t feel like it after a whole day of writing fiction. Two—I am far too critical of other writers’ work. Come on, Dan Brown—the girl “plopped” to the floor?
Joe: Instead of just focussing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?
Graham Masterton: I am proudest of Trauma, the story of a woman crime scene cleaner in Los Angeles who gradually falls apart mentally because of the gruesome scenes she witnesses every day and her collapsing marriage. It was going to be filmed by Jonathan Mostow but sadly Universal pulled the plug on the finance at the last moment. I am not pretentious enough to say that I can get completely inside a woman’s mind, but I am proud of how this turned out, and it was nominated by Mystery Writers of America for Best Original Paperback, among other awards.
Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?
Graham Masterton: I don’t have “target words.” A novel takes as long as it takes. Some scenes need hours of thought and research…others are just conversations which don’t take anything like so long to write. As long as I’ve written the scene that I intended to write, and written it well, then I’m happy. If not, there’s always tomorrow. I am baffled when writers crow about the fact that they’ve “knocked off” 3,000 words. The only question is: were those 3,000 words any good? You’re creating imaginary worlds, and imaginary people, not shovelling manure.
Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?
Graham Masterton: I don’t have one. Nothing is difficult to write about if you face the grim reality of life and try to write about it honestly. As a reporter, I saw a man cut in half by a train bur still talking to the paramedics who were tending to him. Many good friends of mine have died.
Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?
Graham Masterton: After I’ve finished writing I go out to my local pub and meet my friends and we talk about any old rubbish. I like collecting terrible Irish jokes. I think if I hadn’t been an author I would have been a comedian. That may come from my great-grandfather who was a theatrical agent in Victorian London and set up lots of variety shows. He was a Polish émigré who fled to England to escape being conscripted into the Russian Imperial Army, so that is probably why I find Polish women irresistible.
Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?
Graham Masterton: I’m still friends with them because all of my characters are imaginary. In my Irish crime novels I write a lot about the internal politics of An Garda Síochána, the Irish police, but I have formed no relationship with any real officers because that would compromise them and also restrict my ability to be able to be outspoken.
Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?
Graham Masterton: Listening. Even when somebody’s being boring. Everybody has a story to tell.
Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?
Graham Masterton: It made me kinder, more tolerant, and more aware of other people’s problems. Dawn Harris is not only a writer but the manager of a Cancer Research Charity Shop and every Halloween I do a signing session there, as well as donating money which I receive for selling manuscripts. I also support a children’s orphanage near Strzelin, in Poland, and a charity in Wroclaw which supports and shelters young girls who are trafficked into prostitution.
Joe: Which response / comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?
Graham Masterton: A woman who wrote to me after reading the first novel about Detective Superintendent Katie Maguire and said she thought it was written by a woman.
Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?
Graham Masterton: I have no idea. Fashions in fiction change day by day. No matter what anybody says, nobody can predict what’s going to be a bestseller. I never thought that I would ever be writing crime novels, but already they’ve sold well over a million. I have commissions to write two more Katie Maguire novels and another novel about my historical heroine Beatrice Scarlet, who is a kind of 18th century CSI, so I am going to be busy until 2018. Ask me again then!
Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?
Graham Masterton: If just one writer understands from what I’ve written how to make a story come to life…how to make a reader feel the wind on their back and hear a distant ship hooting in a harbour and smell rain on the way…that’ll be enough.
Crystal Lake titles featuring Graham Masterton: