Chatting with Andrew David Barker about “Society Place”

Andrew David Barker is a writer I’ve known for a while, we’ve hung about at various iterations of Edge Lit when conventions weren’t terrifying plague pits. He’s a writer I admire for a variety of reasons, beginning with his skill with the pen.

Andrew’s new novel Society Place is out now from the superb Demain Publishing, who published my chapbook Dulce Et Decorum Est a couple of years back. I’ve had my pre-order in on this book for a while now and can’t wait to dig into my copy.

For those of you that don’t know Andrew’s work…

Andrew David Barker is an author and filmmaker. Born in Derby in 1975, his books include The ElectricDead Leaves, the children’s story, The Winterman and Society Place. As a filmmaker he is the writer and director of the micro-budget post-apocalyptic feature A Reckoning and several award-winning short films. He lives in Warwickshire with his wife and daughters, trying to be a grown up.

Hi Andy, thanks for sitting down with me. To start off, can you tell us a little about your new novel, Society Place and the genesis of the story?

The book came about from wanting to challenge myself as a writer. My first two books, The Electric and Dead Leaves, were both first person narratives with teenage protagonists who were, to be honest, basically me. At least, elements of me. I wanted to write a novel in third person and have the main character be female. In fact, I wanted to write a more female-centric book, with the character of Heather at the forefront of a book full of women.

I’ve always loved ghost stories, and while there are ghosts in The Electric, I’ve never attempted a scary ghost story before, so that was another challenge I wanted to set myself.

I started the story while on holiday in Spain in 2017 and it was a book that I chipped away at over the years. I’m a fairly slow writer anyway, but this one took a little longer because I was taking a different path, and I would leave it for months on end. I had the main bulk of the book done by 2019, but again left it, then in the first lockdown I picked it back up and wrote pretty intensely until it was done. But I think that method worked for me here. I do tend to think about stories for a long time and then work in intense spurts. What I call outrunning the doubt.

I was also writing another novel alongside Society Place, one that is still unpublished.

Society Place is set in the house I grew up in for the first 8 years of my life and there are a lot of elements of my mum and dad in this book, so in that, like the two previous books, it is very personal. I know these streets, these people, this world. Outside of the ghosts anyway, as I’ve never seen one of those.  

Cinema takes a massive role in your fiction, weaving its way through all of your books so far, what specifically about cinema (or cinemas) inspires you so much?

Well, Society Place marks another departure for me in that there is no backdrops of films or filmmaking. In fact, I’m not even sure I mention a film in it. No scratch that, The Exorcist is mentioned, but films don’t really play a part. Music does though. My dad played in bands in the 70s and I did in the 90s, so the character of Mike, Heather’s brother, has elements of my dad particularly.

But yes, movies have always been a big part of my life. I’m probably more influenced by films and filmmakers and screenwriters than novelists. Movies were my first love at a very young age. I was born in 1975 so I’m very much a child of Spielberg and Lucas and also of the horror boom of the 70s and 80s. That all shaped my imagination.

I honestly think that some of my happiest memories from my childhood and teenage years are centred around movies. Going to the pictures, as it was called then, was a major event, and I just caught the tail end of the old ways of cinemas, before multiplexes – Saturday matinees, intermissions, the ice cream lady coming up the aisles. It was magic. Actual magic, and it’s never gone away for me.

Later, in my teenage years, renting videos and with my mates and all piling round someone’s house to watch, I don’t know, Predator or Evil Dead II or Hellraiser was just absolute joy. Dead Leaves talks a lot about that.

The other novel I was writing alongside Society Place is called Mick & Sarah At The Pictures, and that one is very much about the movies. I have a draft of that, but I need to go back and do a rewrite at some point.

You’ve made a number of films yourself, what lessons can filmmaking and screenwriting teach prose writers?

Structure and economy of words. And also, a sense of cutting, writing prose as if I’m editing film. I’m still working at it, but I do like lean prose that gives you a lot with very little. Screenplays are all structure and that has carried over into my novels. There is more freedom with the novel, freedom to move around, to go off on tangents, and I do do that, but I always try and keep the needle on course. Society Place was a little different again, because with this one I was attempting to play around with atmosphere and style a little more than I normally would. Ghost stories – good ghost stories – are more about atmosphere and a sense of place than they are plot. They are also very internal stories. The human reaction to the supernatural is key to a ghost story. 

Your fiction is rooted in the past (whether in terms of settings or where the characters long to be) and there’s a magnificent sense of nostalgia in your work. What is it that keeps dragging you back to the 70s and 80s?

I was nostalgic at 16, which is ridiculous I know, but I was. That has continued throughout my life. I’ve always had a real sense of time passing and it seems to just come out in my work. I don’t know what it is. The 80s is the landscape of my childhood, so that has a big pull. Both Society Place and Mick & Sarah At The Pictures are both set in the 70s and although I only spent the first five years of my life in that decade, and so don’t really remember that much, I still seem to have a nostalgia for it. It’s a bit strange, but this stuff does seem to come out in my writing. However, parts of Society Place are set in modern day and I think it’s the first time I’ve written in a contemporary setting. Outside of screenplays anyway.

Society Place is tinged in the supernatural, do you think ghost stories work better as period pieces (as in not modern), and if so, why?

I tend to think of ghost stories as period pieces, but I don’t think they necessarily have to be. I’ve only written a ghost story in the 70s because I clearly have a phobia of the present. I don’t know, when you think of ghost stories, you do tend to think about MR James and The Turn of the Screw, but they were contemporary at the time. Shirley Jackson was writing in her time. Poltergeist was set in the time it was made.

I was being flippant there. Society Place is mostly set in the 70s because that was the decade of the supernatural, the decade of the Devil – The Exorcist, The Omen, Oujia Boards, James Herbert, Amityville, the Enfield Poltergeist, the list goes on. I just love all that stuff. I wanted that flavour for this book, so I set it in that time. 

Your fiction has a strong sense of place and always feels heavily anchored in realism and detail in that sense, how do you prepare to write specific locations? Do you visit them for inspiration?

I think the strong sense of place comes from the fact that all my novels so far, including the unpublished Mick & Sarah are set in my hometown of Derby. I now live in Warwickshire, and I had to leave Derby in order to write about it. There is the nostalgia, of course, but also, I wanted to set these fantastical stories in the same run-down working-class streets that I grew up on. The extraordinary just beyond the ordinary. That is something I’ve taken from the likes of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King.

I just don’t see much in the way of working-class stories these days, and if I do, they’re hard and gritty and realistic. There is nothing wrong with, but I wanted to put magic into that setting. Whether that be dark or light magic, I wanted to explore that kind of storytelling, set in a world I understand greatly.

I think, however, that it is time for me to get out of Derby in my fiction and I think – I say I think because I do have another novel idea set in Derby – that my next book, whenever I write it, should be set somewhere else. But wherever I set it, hopefully I can give it the same sense of detail and authenticity.

As a filmmaker and a writer, where do you stand on the recent(ish) explosion of audiobooks and fiction podcasts? Do you ever feel tempted to branch out into a new medium?

I think it’s wonderful. Stories were first told, after all, and I think if you’ve got a great reader it can really enrich the book. I’ve always got an audiobook on the go. Both The Electric and Dead Leaves are on Audible and my children’s book, The Winterman, will have its own audiobook as well this coming Christmas. Dead Leaves audiobook has not long come out and I love it. The reader, Josh Shirt, has done a great job with it. 

I do listen to a lot of podcasts, but they are mainly film and writing podcasts, I haven’t really listened to any fiction podcasts as yet. But again, I think it’s a wonderful platform and still kind of in its infancy. People are already pushing the form and doing some really interesting stuff.

I’m all for getting your creativity, your stories, out there by any means possible, and these platforms are growing and just as legitimate as anything else. Someone is going to come along soon and do something really seminal with podcasts.  

How do you make the distinction when you sit down to write between which projects become films and which projects become novels? Would you ever be tempted to adapt one of your own books?

I have adapted Dead Leaves into a screenplay, and I do keep telling myself that I must make a start on The Electric, but I never seem to get to it. I actually think my screenplay for Dead Leaves is a little better than the book, but I’ve not had any bites yet. I’d love to direct that one.

It’s difficult to say how I make the distinction, it’s just a feeling. One idea may just seem more like a movie to me. I think really it comes down to how internal the story feels. If it’s very internal, then it’s a novel, or novella. As Richard Matheson said, films are external, books are internal, and I think that’s true.

At the moment I am writing an original screenplay and that one came clearly to me as a movie. There’s also something else. Short stories and novellas make for very good movies because their length fits neatly into the structure of a two-hour film. Some ideas come to me and they just feel a little too big to fit into that form. I’ve got a huge project I’ve been chipping away at that I thought was a novel, but then realised halfway through the outlining that it could be a limited series, so that got packaged up in that form. 

Who gives you inspiration? Firstly, as a writer and secondly, as a filmmaker? Can those influences ever be truly separated or does one bleed into the other?

I’m always looking for something new to inspire me, but there are a lot of mainstays, people I always go back to – King and Spielberg, or course, Ray Bradbury. I love Dickens, and Paul Auster, but I’m equally inspired by screenwriters. I’ve been reading a lot of David Koepp’s screenplays of late, studying the pace and the economy on a big scale. With filmmakers there is of course Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and I’m very inspired by John Carpenter, Romero, Raimi, for the more independent spirit. I have quite commercial tastes.

I guess it all bleeds into one another for me.  It’s all storytelling.

The writing world and the filmmaking scene are riddled with rejections and disappointments, what keeps you going when it comes to your work?

The rejections are tough, but it’s part of it. I’ve never had an agent, a major publisher, a proper producer. Everything I’ve done and everything I do is off my own back. I do everything on spec. I feel I’m just quietly getting on with creating a lot of IP that one day might do something. But to be honest, I’ll always write, whether I ever manage to make a living out of this stuff or not. It’s just something I have to do.

The discipline to write after the day job, parenting two young children and so on is the hardest part. You have to love the story you’re working on, love to be in that world and be with the characters you’ve created, otherwise it’s very easy to flop in front of the TV. There are many nights when I do just that, but when I’m in a project – properly in – then I can’t wait to get back to the desk. That’s the magic and the real reward. The craft, the actual writing, is the real reward. Everything else is just extras.

If you had the opportunity to write the novelisation of any film, which would it be?

That’s a great question, and something I’ve never thought about before. Off the top of my head, I think I’d say It’s a Wonderful Life, which I believe to be the American Christmas Carol. Frank Capra’s film is rich with all the elements of storytelling that I love. It’s a human drama, a fantasy, a love story, a comedy, a dark tragedy, and a heartfelt parable. I watch it every Christmas Eve. I think I’d go for that one.

That or TeenWolf

What’s next for you, both on the page and on the screen?

I told myself that this year I’m only writing original screenplays and so that’s what I’ve been doing. I finished a thriller with my friend Leigh Dovey in early March called Killer on the Road and then I went straight into writing another script – a sci-fi movie – which I’m currently about 40 pages in on. I’ve got a lot of ideas for movies, so I’ve decided that I’m going actually get them written and sent out in the world and see if anything happens.

Outside of that, I have a short film I wrote for director Rishi Thaker playing festivals this year. That’s called Endling. I’ve got to get back to Mick & Sarah At The Pictures as well and get that finished properly. But I’m having a lot of fun imagining movies at the moment.

Thanks for your time, Andy. Best of luck with the novel launch.

Get your copy of Society Place from Amazon (UK|US)

“Peel back the veneer of everyday life and you find a haunted world…”

DEMAIN PUBLISHING presents, ‘SOCIETY PLACE’ by Andrew David Barker.

Set during the blazing English summer of 1976, recently widowed Heather Lowes moves into the house she was supposed to live with her husband. But now she is alone. Or at least, she thinks she is.

It is a normal terrace house, on an everyday, run-down working class street in a dying industrial town. A place that seldom sees the extraordinary. However, when Heather meets her new neighbours – the old woman next door, the kid from a few doors down – they all seem concerned that she has moved into the house at the end of Society Place.

They seem to know something.

Heather’s nights in the house are troubled. She senses a presence, particularly on the stairs, and down in the cellar. She dare not go down there. As the sweltering summer rages on, Heather experiences supernatural turmoil that tests her sanity and pushes her understanding of reality to its very limits. She learns that there isn’t just one ghost. There is a Nest of Ghosts that haunt, not just her house, but all the houses on Society Place. She also comes to learn of the Nest’s interest in the baby growing inside her, and of the far-reaching consequences of the events of that summer and how they will still be felt into the first decades of the 21st century.

Welcome to Society Place, a nice place to live.

If you’re dead.

Chatting about The Exercise with Mark West

Having seen Mark West’s new novella The Exercise whipping round social media and reading the synopsis, I grabbed my copy and thought it would be a good idea to sit down for a virtual, socially distanced and government regulation meeting chat with Mark about the book.

For those of you that don’t know Mark, he’s one of the most positive voices in the UK horror scene, using his own site to promote and share the work of others, helping to get writers the eyes on their work that they deserve.

With that in mind, this is the first of a number of posts and interviews I have lined up to try to do the same – boost the signal of writers in the genre and help them get the word out about their books.

Can you tell us about your new novella – The Exercise?

The Exercise is about a small group of squaddies in 1943, taking part in a training exercise in The Fens, on the east coast of England. Along the way, one of the group is badly injured and they take refuge in an isolated country house which has been converted into a military hospital. It’s a curious place, with people locked in Nissen Huts in the orchards and armed guards everywhere. Corporal Ray Ward, the squad leader, decides to investigate.

How did the idea present itself?

Back in 2015, I was invited to contribute to an anthology of war stories and – having never written one before – agreed readily. I had no idea of the story but on one of my nightly walks (since my heart attack, I try and do at least 2 miles a night), I got the basic plot and over the next few evenings, events and set pieces came to me. I then sat down with my Mum & Dad, to run through the plot, as Dad’s a real WW2 buff and they were full of ideas. In fact, as helpful as Dad was, it was Mum who came up with the reason why they found the house in the first place! 

Once I’d got the basic pieces in place and knew the ending (I almost always need to know the ending), I took off and it was a very enjoyable writing process.  Once I’d finished, Dad read through the first few chapters (which are most time-period-specific) and my regular pre-readers came up with other thoughts and I welded them all together.

Did you have to do much research on the 1940s to keep the story authentic?

More than I normally would, certainly. I watched a few old films, read a couple of memoirs (including my own Grampy’s one, which my Dad had transcribed from old diaries) to get the voices and then relied on Dad’s expertise. As other people say – any mistakes were mine, because the input he had was terrific. Outside of military/speech specific stuff though, it’s basically an adventure horror novella and I just ran with it after a while.

What made you want to give The Exercise a new lease of life?

A couple of reasons, to be honest.  Over the past few years, I’ve been focusing on writing mainstream thriller novels, with the idea of getting agency interest and they take up a lot of my free time, so I’ve had less chance to write horror shorts and novellas. The novel I’m currently in the middle of was written during the pandemic (and proved a real boon, a safe place I could immerse myself into away from everything swirling around me) and took up all my time, so I was looking to put something out to try and “keep my name out there”, if that makes sense. I did similar last year, with my short story Mr Stix.  As I was looking through my files, for something to work on, I came across this and quite liked the idea of putting out a longer piece of work.

The Exercise was written for and published in an anthology edited by Adrian Chamberlin and published by the wonderful Terry Grimwood’s theEXAGGERATEDpress. I was proud to be included and the anthology looked great – four other fantastic writers, a great Ben Baldwin cover, a launch at Edge-Lit in 2016 and an all-round wonderful production – but for some reason, it never got any traction. In fact, I spoke with Terry about it (I asked him permission to use the story) and he couldn’t explain it either. 

So that kind of decided it, I had a story I liked a lot, that I’d worked hard on but I didn’t feel had achieved its full potential so I decided to give it another chance.

You’ve put the book out under your own PenMan Press label. What’s the history behind that?

When I was a kid (I started writing fiction when I was about 8 or so), my dad got me an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter that was being chucked out from his work. I taught myself to type (which is why, even today – and as the proud possessor of RSA1 Typing – I use three fingers on each hand and a thumb, but thankfully I’m a very quick typist) and fairly quickly figured out that with some Letraset, a photograph and a hole-punch, I could make my own books (this was in the early 80s). PenMan Press came out of that, a word I’d found to describe a writer – and shoving in the word “press” – and it stuck. When I got my first computer, I designed the logo using clipart (which I still use, 30+ years later) and so it was always my default label.

As someone who has published with small presses and under your own label, how did you take the decision to bring The Exercise out yourself and what are the benefits of self-publishing?

The Exercise, as I mentioned above, was something I wanted to do for myself – I knew it worked, it had already been through the editorial process and I wanted to give it some exposure. I suppose I could have gone to another publisher but it’s not original and I didn’t want to hamstring anyone and potentially risk their sales. 

In general, whenever I do anything, it’s always with someone else – I know enough to be able to get by, but certainly the presses I’ve been involved with have strong editorial standards, the books look great and the whole process is well-oiled.  PenMan Press – or me, in my study – is none of those things but it does give me some leeway to do things how I think they should be done.  Which could be good or it could be bad…

How long did it take you to get The Exercise ready for publication?

Difficult to say, really, but after I’d decided to re-publish it I first read through the piece and revised the text – not to correct Adrian’s editing, but just to tighten things up a bit (after all, as should be the case, I’d learned new things since originally writing it). I then sent it out to a few trusted readings, to make sure everything held up and then collated their comments. 

It was then a process of using Kindle Create to put it all together, which was a steep learning process but fairly interesting. So for the eBook body itself and the cover, I’d say it took me the best part of a weekend to work through.

You’ve made the cover for The Exercise yourself and I have to say, I’m jealous as I have absolutely no graphic design skills myself. Can you talk us through how you did it and what the inspiration was?

Thanks, glad you liked it.  I don’t have any formal skills but I’m an enthusiastic amateur and I’ve designed covers and book trailers in the past and really enjoyed it.  With this, I knew I wanted to see the house and it was just a matter of finding the right picture (and making sure I could use it). 

That takes a lot longer than you’d expect, but is basically sitting staring at the screen, flicking through Google Images and Flickr. Once I’d got the basic building, I found a sky I liked, cut one into the other, played with the effects and got something I liked. Overall, it took me a couple of days pretty much full-on to put it all together.

The Exercise shot up the horror new releases chart when you announced it, has it given you the appetite for releasing more books yourself?

It certainly pleased me to see it happen and I was very lucky – I did my blog post and then friends were good enough to share my social media posts and generate some interest.  As for doing it again, we’ll have to see!

Do you have any advice for someone looking to start publishing their own work?

Do it properly.  Don’t  just bash out a story, stick some cover art on it and chuck it onto Amazon – yes, you’ll have a piece of work out there and yes, you might even get someone to buy it, but people can be quite sniffy about self-published stuff and if it’s bad (either the story, the writing or the production), they’re unlikely to give you a second chance. 

Approach it as you would a first interview, be well-prepared and present the best you possible.

Don’t assume you’ll pick up every typo, get a trusted reader (or several) to read through it for you and listen to what they say. Get a decent edit, either from someone you trust or someone who knows what they’re doing. If you can’t afford to get a cover artist, by all means give it a go yourself but just because your mum says you’re a great painter, that sadly doesn’t make it so.

In short, make a product that you’d be proud to put your name to. Then use a proper resource (like the free Kindle Create tool) and figure out how to use it.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

I’m currently midway through the third draft of my third mainstream thriller.  Once I’ve finished, that’ll go out to my pre(Beta)-readers and while it’s off on its travels, I’m going to revise another older novella of mine – “The Lost Film” – which’ll be re-published later this year in a collection.

Thanks for inviting me, Dan, great questions!

You can get your copy of The Exercise at Amazon (UK|US) now.

Mark West lives in Northamptonshire with his wife Alison and their son Matthew.  Since discovering the small press in 1998 he has published over eighty short stories, two novels, a novelette, a chapbook, two collections and six novellas  (one of which, Drive, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award).  He has more short stories forthcoming and is currently working on a crime/thriller novel. 

Away from writing, he enjoys reading, walking, watching films and playing Dudeball with his son.

He can be contacted through his website and is also on Twitter as @MarkEWest