Rebecca Wojturska speaks to David Quantick about his recent novel, All My Colors, a book which Rebecca describes in her review as a “fast-paced genre-bending whirlwind of hilarity and horror”. They also talk about what Quantick is working on next, why comedy and horror often go together, and human suitcases. Yes, human suitcases.
Rebecca Wojturska: I will start with the obvious question, that the book picks apart, but where did the idea come from?
David Quantick: Long story is, for years I was looking for a story I read as a teenager, a science fiction story, and I can remember everything about the story apart from the title and who wrote it. I know the plot and I can remember bits from it, and I spent about fifty quid buying old science fiction anthologies from the 70s that would have been in the library when I was a kid. But I could never find it. One day I was so frustrated that I thought I could write it, you know, like a wooden doll if you can’t afford a doll or making a car out of twigs and I thought, this is stupid. You can’t just write that. But I thought, what if someone did that? And not just a short science fiction story, but what if it was the most famous book in the world? What if you’d heard a Graham Greene novel or 50 Shades of Grey or Harry Potter, and that was the idea. Then loads of things came together. That it would be a horror novel, which meant that the person who had the idea would have something horrible happen to them. After that, it was easy.
RW: Did you set out to write it specifically as a horror novel? It also is very funny.
DQ: Well, it wasn’t meant to be funny. My wife and a few people had said, “you don’t need to do comedy all the time, you might be good at other stuff”. But what I do, because I’ve written in lots of different areas, is when you have an idea you think “well that could be a sketch or that could be a film”, but this was definitely wasn’t a film. I mean, it could be a film, it’d be great. But it was clearly a novel. And there’s a novel by Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman, called Thinner, and it reminded me of that, not because it’s not the same story but because it’s the same kind of story, it’s relentless. In theory, a man is cursed to lose weight, so loses weight and loses weight, and that’s it. This story is similar as it’s about a man who’s cursed in a way, and it just happens. And there’s no other bits, like a friend getting married or a funny dog, to detract from that.
RW: I think I found elements funny, as I work in publishing and saw people and situations reflected in my career!
DQ: The only bit I put in to be deliberately funny was when he is wearing adult diapers! Although it probably wouldn’t be funny if it happened. But some of it was wish fulfilment; I’d love to be wined and dined by agents in New York in the 70s.
RW: I was wondering how much of it reflected your experience of the book publishing industry?
DQ: Not much! I’ve been with lots of different publishers for things and they’ve all been very nice, but they don’t really do the wining and dining so much these days… or so they’re telling me. I wasn’t actually an adult in the 70s but I’ve been to America and have had various things to do with America in my life. I know a bit about publishing and I’ve just written a book about writing. I interviewed an agent called Jo Unwin and in All My Colors there is a bit where he finds an agent then a publisher and it was very cut-to-the-chase. So, it was part wish fulfilment and part punishment, combined.
RW: Is the writing process different for radio, television, film and books?
DQ: I think it’s mainly different because of length. The difference between a sprint and a marathon. There’s an urge to splurge, but in a book you have time. You can plot chapters and use that time to describe, for example, the horrible man who owns the bookshop. You can describe his stupid shop. You can make comments and step out, whereas if it was a radio play it would be “ding dong, hello Todd, how are you? Hello, I can’t find this book. Here’s a knife. Stab”. I’ve written film scripts, but that’s a different world because you build everything with dialogue and visuals. In a novel, the real difference is that you can just tell people stuff. You can say what people are thinking. You can say what’s going to happen. I love doing the ironic bit of, “that was the last time she saw him”.
RW: I knew I was going to love the book when the first sentence told me that Todd was an asshole.
DQ: You can do that in a book. If you do that in a film, people are like “wait, how do we know!” and you’d have to show him being an asshole.
RW: I was wondering if any of the characters were based on anyone you’ve met?
DQ: Nobody in it is based on a real person. The character of Timothy is a sort-of tribute to Stephen King, because he’s written a lot of old men who appear to be nice but who are actually vile. Some of them are shopkeepers. If Stephen King reads it, I’m in trouble, because Timothy is several Stephen King characters combined. Todd was just a picture in my head of a guy with a big tumbler of whisky, smoking and holding forth in a room of differently graded losers. I think basing characters on real people is limiting, because you’re describing something that you know. Whereas if you invent stuff, everyone has a different notion of the character. I couldn’t tell you what colour hair Todd has. I think it’s best to leave it to people’s imagination.
RW: I agree! I think Timothy is actually my favourite character. I think I’ve met so many Timothy’s!
DQ: I’ve got a thing about notebooks. Most people who actually write do it on bus tickets, on their phones and on envelopes. People who don’t write tend to have, oh god I bet you’ve got one and I’m being rude, beautiful gold-bound notebooks with ‘My Thoughts’ written on. There are people who buy books to read them and people who buy books because they’re beautiful, and both are fine, but books are vehicles for reading.
RW: I don’t have one of those notebooks!
DQ: I’m glad to hear it! I think my favourite joke in the book is Timothy has a sign on the shop door and the open side says something like “Welcome friends to this land of magical reading” and the other sign just says “Closed”. It’s just running a business, but he likes to dress it up as this magical wonderland of literature. And he’s just a shit really.
RW: I noticed you’ve written a couple of books about the writing process?
DQ: Yeah, that was fun to do. They’re interviews with people who write or works with writers. I interviewed an agent, thriller writers, comedy writers, a poet, a playwright and my accountant, because that’s an element of writing that gets swept under the carpet. They’re useful books. I think a review on Amazon says, “just tells you to write stuff”.
RW: Do you feel you learnt a few things while researching those books that helped you write All My Colors?
DQ: I think so. Partly, it was confirmation that the things you’re doing aren’t mad. But the most interesting thing I learned was that everybody thinks that to write a book you should get up early and start when the day starts, but it doesn’t matter. The two thriller writers I interviewed said they write at night when it’s dark because it’s more scary. I like the idea that they’re getting a bit scared when they write.
RW: That’s why writers wear nappies.
RW: Did you try any of the methods suggested in your research?
DQ: Not the wearing nappies. I didn’t try writing in the dark. Don’t write drunk. Don’t write on drugs. Don’t stay up late and get tired. I think one thing I have in common with All My Colors is I just sit down and write. I wrote most of this book on train when I had horrible two-hour journeys to London. I would sit in a corner where I couldn’t see anyone, put on headphones that weren’t playing music and write. I’m not the kind of writer who reads back each sentence every time. I was talking to a lot of people from the publishers and one quoted a line from my books, and I was like “is that in the book?!”.
RW: If you had one piece of writing advice for anyone, what would it be?
DQ: It would be what the bloke on Amazon hated: just write. It took me about thirty years to write a publishable novel, but I just kept writing and writing other things. I think writing is like any exercise; if you do it a lot you get better. If you don’t do it, you don’t get better.
RW: Do you have any plans to write more horror?
DQ: The next book for Titan is called Night Train, but it’s more science fiction, although it’s got horror in it. The opening scene is a woman wakes up in a pitch-dark room with a horrible noise going on, and she tries to get up and the room is moving and shaking. And then she realises she’s not in a room at all, she’s on a train and it’s a story of her trying to figure out why she’s on a train and why there are dead bodies in the next carriage. I enjoyed writing it and there are horrible things in it. I’ve been trying to get this in a story for years, where there’s someone with super strength and they pull somebodies spine out of their back and carry them about like a suitcase. The next book I want to do, is a proper horror. A bit like All My Colors, although not unintentionally funny this time.
RW: Sorry, I’m just trying to figure out how much you could stuff into a human suitcase. I think a fair amount.
DQ: If you eviscerated them, then, yeah! Might be a good fashion look. Tan their skin then remove the limbs and the head, and just carry the spine. I think there’s money in this.
RW: I feel this is turning into a “how to make your own human suitcase” narrative.
DQ: I’ll split the money with you if you do it.
RW: Thank you. We’ll be rich!
DQ: And a large crowd outside the Crown Court. “Human Suitcase Woman Blames Interviewee”.
RW: We need a brand name for it.
DQ: I’ll have to think about that.
RW: Let’s mull it over. I noticed you’re being interviewed at Cymera festival in Edinburgh?
DQ: I am! It’s my first science-fiction and horror related festival. I have no idea what’s going to happen but it’s nice to be in that world. Rather than in general publishing where people are a bit baffled by what you’re doing. One reason I think people assume the book is a comedy book, is because of my background, which is telly and comedy, so it will be nice to go to a festival where people aren’t expecting me to just do jokes from The Thick of It, or whatever.
RW: So, are you wanting to write a bit more science fiction, as well as horror?
DQ: Yeah. Another book I’ve written is about a North Korean girl who wakes up and finds herself in a K-Pop band.
RW: Well, that sounds great! When will Night Train be out?
DQ: In 2020. I’m writing a few other bits too, which are doing the rounds.
RW: Not long then! Back to All My Colors, I feel like Todd learnt a few lessons.
DQ: I wrote the book I really wanted to write, and I’m really happy about that. And the thing with torturing characters, you have to give them hope, there’s no good just torturing someone who is miserable and thinks they are going to die. You need to open the window and show them the life they could have had for about ten seconds, before you shut it. So, Todd was going to redeem his life. He was going to stay with his girlfriend, but he just couldn’t stop being an asshole.
RW: In my review, I wrote the book has a feminist edge. Was that something you aimed to do or did that develop as you were writing it?
DQ: It developed as I was writing it. It’s a horror novel, so Todd is going to get punished. Why? It’s boring if he’s punished because of the laws of copyright. But it came into my head that men steal from women, and you still see a lot of cases where women literally have their identity stolen by men or their works stolen. I thought, if he has ripped off a woman, with the idea of revenge, that’s more interesting to me. It all just flowed from there and the final sequence was exciting to write.
RW: I think you did it really well.
DQ: Thank you. I was just a bit sick, because I’d read a lot of books and been to so many festivals where every fucking book was about women being mutilated and harmed and I thought, is this the bulk of literature now? I had a problem with that. I did have to kill a woman in my story, but I didn’t want it to be a suitcase murder. Clearly suitcases are my obsession.
RW: You’ve done horror proud! Where did the title come from?
DQ: It’s just the first thing that came into my head. It’s an Echo & The Bunnymen song.
RW: A particular favourite?
DQ: Yeah. I wasn’t even thinking of the song. I haven’t spoke about this much but I have children and one of their favourite books is called Elmer’s Colours about Elmer the elephant. It’s a mixture of those. But it worked! It also works well that historically, there could be older books called All My Colors.
RW: It is definitely more timeless.
DQ: Yeah, if I called it something like, Groovy High Five it might have not worked so much.
RW: What other projects are you working on other than books?
DQ: I’m doing some telly things that I can’t talk about legally. I’m writing short stories for my website. And I wrote the script for a musical about the Reggie Perrin books and TV series, I’m doing that with Jonathan Coe and Mike Batt. I’m also planning books and writing books. It’s amazing how good for the confidence getting published is, because you just think “I’ll write more books!”, instead of just blindly flailing around trying to find a project that sticks.
RW: I noticed the monthly short stories on your website. Which one would you recommend people start with if they are new to your writing?
DQ: Zellaby-In-The-Moor. It’s meant to be a John Wyndham tribute but a bit different. They’re all different but that one is a good one to start with. My advice to anyone who wants to read them is look at the titles and if you think the title is interesting, read it. One is completely insane, about a man who thinks Field Marshal Montgomery has been hired to be his double and take his place.
RW: Your writing is quite conceptual, in that you ask a question and try to answer it.
DQ: I think that’s why I ended up writing horror and science fiction. But a lot of comedy is like that. Just simple, weird concepts. I think that’s why people like science fiction. Same in horror. I like Stephen King’s thing of “what about a horrible dog?”, “what about a horrible this?”.
RW: He covered a lot of ground.
DQ: He did. I’ve always wanted to write a story about a haunted cigarette packet.
RW: I would love that. Do you have any favourite horror writers?
DQ: Stephen King, obviously. Neil Gaimon knows how to write horror. I consider John Wyndham a horror writer. M. R. James. E. Nesbitt. I like a lot of children’s writers and how they segway together. E. Nesbitt wrote all these wonderful kid’s books but there are some horrific creatures. Although the greatest horror story of all time, there was a writer called Lucy Clifford, and she wrote a story called ‘The New Mother’. It will put the shits up you. Don’t read it at night.
RW: Are you a fan of horror films as well?
DQ: Not really. I get scared. I think I go as far as Shaun of the Dead. Although I like The Wicker Man and spooky horror like The Others, but I really like Last Train to Busan. Korean horror is great. I enjoyed the Japanese horror comedy, One Cut of the Dead.
RW: You find horror and comedy come together often.
DQ: Yeah, this is a fascination of mine. Bad horror is accidentally funny, because it’s so on the edge. There’s something just very funny about fictional mass slaughter. And zombie films are funny. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are very funny. Black comedy is something I’ve always liked. You found in the 30s there was a big wave of horror films, like Dracula and Frankenstein, and then there was a wave of comedy-horror like Abbott and Costello meets Dracula. It should be the law that whenever something dies, Abbott and Costello come along and take the piss out of it.
RW: Let’s make it happen! I’m looking forward to seeing your interview at Cymera festival.
DQ: Don’t forget to bring your suitcase.