The Confession Book: Graham Masterton

Noah Charney interviews great authors about the writing life

/ by Noah Charney

This week we feature cult horror writer Graham Masterston, who has a thing for Polish pickled herring.


Where did you grow up?

Scotland, Surrey, and Germany.


Where and what did you study?

General school studies, before I was expelled for being awkward. Then a four-year stint as a junior newspaper reporter.


Where do you live and why?

Close to the Derby racecourse on Epsom Downs. It is only twenty minutes away from the center of London by train, yet less than forty minutes away from Brighton and the sea. It is also in between Heathrow and Gatwick airports. On a clear day you can see all the way to the next county.


Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

I can’t think of any book of which I am not proud. But I have a particular fondness for my historical sagas Solitaire, about the early days of diamond mining in South Africa and Maiden Voyage, about the first transatlantic journey by an ocean liner in 1924. I am also proud of Trauma (aka Bonnie Winter), about a crime-scene cleaner, which was nominated Best Original Paperback of 2003 by Mystery Writers of America, and Descendant, which was my take on vampires, set in the 1950s Britain of my boyhood. A special place has to go to Scare Care, which was a collection of stories donated for free by many different horror writers, including James Herbert, Harlan Ellison, and Ramsey Campbell, the proceeds from which all went to charities for sick or disadvantaged children across the world.


Describe your morning routine.

Lie in bed working out the next chapter. Get up, make a mug of what American railroad workers used to call horseshoe coffee (coffee so strong that you could float a horseshoe in it). Maybe eat something healthy like sliced banana, Polish blueberries, and Greek yogurt. Start work.


What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Putting on accents. Especially a droning petty bureaucrat accent or a Cork accent.


What is your favorite item of clothing?

At the moment my long formal overcoat. I detest anoraks.


Please recommend three scary books (not your own) to your readers.

I never read scary books so I regret that I can’t. But I remember as a schoolboy being frightened by the stories of MR James, such as “Casting the Runes” and “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.”


Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

My late wife Wiescka, who died in April 2011, was my inspiration for the 37 years we were together. She would read each chapter as I wrote them. Now I have a Polish friend in Warsaw to whom I send my chapters daily. She is a lovely girl and is a great incentive for me to keep on writing.


What is a place that inspires you?

I am always inspired by Poland. Wiescka first sold my books there in 1989, when the country was still Communist and it was very drab. But now Warsaw is thriving and the older cities like Poznan and Krakow and Wroclaw are very beautiful. My great-grandfather was Polish, and of course Wiescka was Polish, and I have so many friends there. It is always like coming home, both physically and spiritually. I also love Polish women, the way they look and their personalities.


Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

Because I was trained as a newspaper reporter, I am always on the lookout for interesting news stories which might inspire a novel. For instance, I have just finished a new thriller featuring my Irish detective, Katie Maguire. I read so many news stories about priests being retrospectively accused of child abuse that I combined this with another story about medieval practices in the Catholic Church, and made a horrific crime story out of it. Trauma was inspired by an article in a news magazine about a woman crime-scene cleaner, combined with an ancient Mexican legend that I had heard about.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I sit. I write.


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

I keep a clock, a small bronze statuette of a fan dancer, a photograph of Wiescka, and a mirror. The mirror is important for writing about facial expressions. I started using one after reading comments by Ward Kimball, who used to draw Donald Duck, about always using a mirror to capture expressions accurately.


What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I never get stuck and I never get writer’s block. I was trained as a journalist and journalists have to write whether they feel like it or not. Besides, I have commissions to write novels until 2014.


Describe your ideal day.

Workwise – writing consistently from about 9:00 in the morning till 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, pausing for a sandwich or a snack. Relaxing – going out with any of my three sons, and especially meeting my grandson Blake and my grand-daughter Felicity. Or having lunch and discussing her progress with my friend Dawn. I am teaching her how to write a novel.


Describe your evening routine.

Go to my local pub and talk to my friends.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?



What is guaranteed to make you cry?

What do you think?


Do you have any superstitions?

I throw two pinches of salt over my left shoulder if I spill any. Well, you have to keep the Devil away somehow.


What is something you always carry with you?

My abiding curiosity about other people’s business.


If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

My wife. You don’t stop loving people just because they’re dead.


What is your favorite snack?

Sledz. (Polish pickled herring).


What phrase do you over-use?

“I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about.”


What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

I had been writing a series of articles on sexual behavior for Mayfair, the men’s magazine (of which I was deputy editor). I was approached by a publisher called Neville Spearman to write a book about people’s erotic fantasies. It was called Your Erotic Fantasies, and it was published under the pseudonym of Edward Thorne.


Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

I suppose the making of The Manitou into a movie, with Tony Curtis playing the lead character, was one moment…also when Simon & Schuster published my 700-page historical saga, Rich. But I was used to having my name in print from the age of 17, so I didn’t get the same buzz that I know many new authors do. To me it was just part of what my friend William Burroughs used to call “the job.”


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

A chapter or most of a chapter and a significant move forward in the story. We’re probably talking about seven to ten pages. I used to write more when I was younger. I finished off Night Warriors by writing 51 pages in one day. The Manitou was 120 pages long and took me only five days to write.


Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

Book tours are rarely funny. They are very hard work, although I love meeting readers and signing their books for them.


What do you think makes a horror story work? What are the necessary components, and how would you distinguish literary horror, like your work, and “slasher” novels?

Horror stories work when they play on fundamental fears, but they are only frightening if the characters are living, breathing people, and the setting is highly believable. I recently wrote a story called “What the Dark Does,” which is about dressing-gowns hanging on the backs of bedroom doors, and I asked more than twenty people whether they found them frightening, and every one of them did. I don’t know if my work is “literary” or not, but the only way I would distinguish it from what you call “slasher” fiction is that it creates a realistic world with realistic people in it, with everyday fears and motivations that make sense, rather than depending on blood and mindless cruelty.


Do you distinguish “horror” from “terror?” If so, which emotion do you seek to harness?

I have written plenty of stories which are “dread” or “fear” rather than out-and-out horror. The principal emotion I try to harness is the fear of being helpless…not only to save yourself from something horrible, but the people you love and care about.


What are your favorite, most inspirational, scary novels or short stories?

As I say, I never read fiction, and in particular I don’t read horror fiction. If I were a chef, I wouldn’t come home at the end of the day and start cooking.


What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?



What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Research the hell out of your subject and then forget about it. Forget the page or the PC screen in front of you and BE there, inside your story. Use sounds and smells to evoke reality in your scenes. Work on your dialogue. Realistic-sound dialogue is one of the hardest things to write. If you quoted people verbatim, your book would be the most boring book in the world. Keep at it. Writing is a slog, and sometimes it can be no more exciting than digging a trench, and just as hard work.


What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“He came. He went.”


Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

Apart from being a remarkable cook of Indonesian food (I was featured in The Daily Telegraph with my recipe for Malaccan Devil Curry), I am a peerless singer of Victorian music-hall ballads, such as “A Mother’s Lament (Your Baby Has Gone down the Plughole)” and “It Ain’t All Lavender.” This is hardly surprising since my great-grandfather, when he came to England, became a theatrical impresario and managed Dan Leno, who was the top music-hall artiste of his time and a favorite of Queen Victoria. Dan Leno recorded a joke in 1902 which can still be heard on Google. (It wasn’t very funny.)


What is your next project?

I am developing my crime series set in Cork, Ireland, where Wiescka and I lived for four years. The first book, A Terrible Beauty, will be out early in January, 2013. The second book, No Sweeter Song, will come out several months later. I have already mentally blocked out the third book, Saint Patrick’s Snake

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.