Friday, 14 September 2012

Interview with occult author Alan Shaw

Yep, it's Friday and that means time to ask probing questions of someone, so who is in the hot seat this week? Alan Shaw and boy is this a probing interview! Enjoy!

I don’t usually ask such trite questions, but given the nature and diversity of the themes in Project Overkill , can you explain a little about the themes and how you came up with the idea for the novel? 

I wanted to write something that would be an exciting page turner for the reader but at the same time begin as one thing then turn into quite another. I love that sort of plot, not least because life generally has a habit of surprising us. I also wanted the main characters to have a back story that would itself be interesting and at the same time explain their own attributes. So instead of giving Mike half a page with a few lines about the Special Forces and a quick hint that he also has a sensitive side I decided to explain his relevant background fully and at the same time give the reader another story. The same applied to Claire and Summers: I didn’t want the reader to feel cheated but to show I’d done some work to serve them something they could chew instead of just swallow.

By the same token I wanted the occult main plot to appear gradually and grow from apparently haphazard events. But I also wanted it to have strong light to balance the darkness: otherwise it just becomes a tedious catalogue of horror-mystery lacking the substance that I think people appreciate. 

The short answer then is that I wanted to write the sort of thing I’d enjoy reading, let the pen flow, and the novel stand in its own right. I’m a firm believer in the old maxim that ‘nobody knows anything’ when taking a book to market, so you might as well deliver what you set out to and hope for the best.

Who do you see as your target audience for this book, given that the themes are so varied? 

Men and women who enjoy what I hope is an intelligent well-researched, complex, but coherent novel dealing with horror and the occult. I didn’t consider going for any particular target audience because I think people are perfectly capable of reading and enjoying several different types of novel provided something attracts them in the first place.  

Are there any other authors out there, you consider your work to be similar to? (not being my usual genre, I am not in a position to know!) 

Not that I know of. There again I haven’t read what I consider to be a really good occult novel since The Historian, a brilliant novel by Elizabeth Kostova. In fact I don’t think I’ve tried anything in that genre since. I much prefer a good crime novel or a biography. 
But I must single out The Devil Rides Out’ by Dennis Wheatley, first published in 1934, as being something that most reminds me of Overkill. I was impressed by how much he knew about the subject and how that made everything far more convincing. For that reason I pay a tribute: it is referred to by Marcia, unmistakably but not by name, when she describes to Mike how she first discovered she has mediumistic powers. 
As an aside I read ages ago in one of the Sundays that Wheatley and Crowley had been friends and that explained a great deal! 

I was interested, after reading the book, to realise that Crowley was a real person – again having no interest in the occult, I hadn’t realised this whilst reading the book.  Does Crowley fascinate you and how much historical research, if any, did you do for this part of the book? 

I’m glad that happened because there is heaps of stuff in the novel, like for example the Crowley / Neuberg relationship, that can be uncovered if a reader is tempted to enquire, and that is all intentional. Primarily though it is written to deliver without the reader knowing a thing. 

Having read two Crowley biographies, although not the most recent ones, and done a great deal of other  research I think I can say that he was definitely a complex and significant character but I suspect few of us would have wanted to meet him. I came across him completely by chance when I picked up the John Symonds biography in a bookstall. I thought it worth a go and discovered that despite the reputation he had in life his legacy – which includes a ‘religion’ called Thelema would you believe? –has produced an increasing following over the years. His image is even depicted on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and many quite famous people knew him in life and many others have collected his works etc. since. There’s no doubt he possessed enormous intelligence as well as the flaws referred to in Overkill and elsewhere, and a high degree of what we could only call ‘occult power’. 
I wanted a strong historical character and frankly couldn’t have found a better one. My research was intense and took a few months. I also managed to get through his autobiography as part of it and looked at a few of his magical writings but could not understand them. They did though point me to the conclusion that you have to be very brainy to grasp a lot of this stuff and that helped shape Montgomery’s background. 

Now to the nitty gritty – you’ve seen my review and my thoughts that some of the sex was over the score. Was there a particular reason why you made some scenes very graphic? 

Yes, and if I may I’ll respond to Q6 at the same time. The graphic passages are plot and character driven.
Proceeding on the basis that Satanism ‘works’, as portrayed in the novel, all practitioners are linked to certain demons, and these demons broadly correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins. Predominant in the order for any Satanist is the demon that is closest to his own nature. 

In Summers’ case his major weakness – which, remember, is a strength in his perception – is lust. Thus, when he first recognises Marcia’s clairvoyant potential he weaves a spell to charm her into desiring him. Her strength of character and mistrust of him just about save her on that occasion but the residual effect of the spell causes the scene with Mike to take place. Without being graphic an act depicted there is a feature of that sort of spell – anyone who has seen the original Omen 3 will get the idea. A further clue to his influence is given in the scene where they are examining the videotape together.

Some other passages directly involving Summers are also there to demonstrate the power he possesses and the nature of his character. Not to do so would present a watered down version but I opted for the full cut. In another scene the activity follows an already established historical rite [the Paris sequence] and in another, when Mike is scared almost to death, represents what I discovered is a traditional culmination to activity of that nature. I wanted readers to see the whole thing and it is another case of the pen flowing.  

If any reader wants any further background I’ll be happy to provide it but any more information now might be a bit of a spoiler.  
How do the sex scenes overall and the occult link up?
Please see above.

I enjoyed the army section at the beginning, and thought it was very well portrayed. I also liked how it linked in to parts later in the book.  Was this research or do you have first hand experience? 

I do have a little firsthand experience, but not nearly as dramatic and meaningful as Mike’s. I certainly know what it is like to come off second best against barbed wire! Research was needed for the Para-specific elements, and I was given word of mouth information about the bomb defusing techniques [not all of which I included].  

Secret societies and symbolism and power run through the book, as well as the forces of good and evil (if I have interpreted correctly). How much was the book meant to leave a message and what was the message (without giving any spoilers)?

Whilst not a ‘message’ novel as such I’d be happy if readers picked up on the value of doing everything you can to protect those you love. 

You set the novel in Shrewsbury. Was there a particular reason or was it simply because you are from there and wanted to give the novel a local flavour? 

Well, a tale such as Overkill benefits I think from being set in a small medieval English town with a very ghostly and sometimes gory history of its own. In addition it is not too far from Leamington and Chester, which as you know are also important to the story. Essentially, though, it is a nice change from having a big city as the hub of a novel. 

Are you working on something else now?  What are your future plans, as a writer? 

Overkill is the first part of a planned trilogy, and I am working on the next, The Shrewsbury Murders, at present. Afterwards there will be continuing promotion of course while I embark on the final segment. I’m honestly not thinking any further than that at present.  

Fun Stuff

Bravest thing you’ve ever done? (publishing book, as always not allowed!) 

On a bus I once confronted some youths who had a knife and were upsetting other passengers. [Thinking back it was also probably the stupidest, but at least I lived to tell the tale.] 

What genres of books do you read? 

I read far less than I used but I do enjoy a good meaty crime drama – James Ellroy and Henning Mankell are high on my list, as is Raymond Chandler for his wonderful Philip Marlowe series. I’m also keen on political biographies, but not autobiographies because I think they are usually too biased in favour of the author. 

Which novel would you say has made the biggest impact/left its mark on you?
Gosh, that’s a tough one. I’ll choose, at an early age, Corridors of Power by CP Snow. Without it I would not have discovered the wealth of good literature out there as early as I did.  

Celebrity crush – and I don’t mean in a reality TV show way! Actress/model /singer etc acceptable. 
Oh, these are probing: I’m really, really keen on Charlize Theron 

Are you sporty? If so, fave sport to play and watch? Don’t need to be the same. 

I am, I went to one of those schools where you do everything from gymnastics to cross county running. I’ll go for cricket and football. 

Fave film genre and film 

Westerns / The Wild Bunch [I could write reams about it but you’d only tell me off!]. 

Guessing that rom coms would not be your thing, but if you had to watch one, which would be least painful for you? 

You’re right but I’ve seen and enjoyed Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally and Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Name something you wish you’d done ‘before you were 30’ but haven’t and would still like to do 

Oh, Blimey! Write a novel that gets filmed and becomes a monster hit. Still hoping! 

Do you like Harry Potter?  If so, favourite movie/book (this loosely ties in with the magick!)

Have never read one I’m afraid but enjoyed a couple of the movies. But I admire JKR’s success enormously and have great admiration for all the brilliant work she does outside writing. 

If you didn’t live where you do, where would you like to live and why?

Annapolis, in Maryland USA, where I have so many happy memories of holidaying with friends in the nineties and noughties. My house would overlook the harbour and be within easy distance of Pusser’s Caribbean Grill.

 Thanks, Alan, for those very revealing answers. If you want to follow Alan's progress, here are his links:-
Twitter - @billypike
You can also buy Project Overkill on Amazon - (UK) & (US & other .com)
I'll be back on Sunday for more Six Sentence Sunday action from Sign of the Times. Right, back to editing The Dating Game!

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