He immediately put me at my ease and we developed a terrific friendship, which often involves us talking for hours at Cons (in hallways, dealer rooms, over breakfast) about all things horror. He’s been very supportive of my writing and when I found out that his novel “Phoenix” was being published by his own imprint PunkLit, I jumped at the chance to read it. I posted my review here yesterday but, to precis it, I suggest you go and buy the book, it’s excellent!
I was so impressed with the book that I approached Steve to see if he’d be interested in being interviewed on the blog and, thankfully, he agreed.
Steve’s a great character, a Metal fan from the Black Country with a wide knowledge on our beloved genre, a keen sense of humour and wonderful company.
MW: Thanks for agreeing to this. To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
SH: Thank you, Mark! I’ve been a fan of horror for as long as I’ve been a fan of anything - I think I was born that way. It seemed like there was a hidden world beyond the mundane, and that was a landscape I wanted to explore. I spent most of my childhood in libraries, learning about the latest dark thing to pique my curiosity, and if not there, I’d be reading horror novels, watching video nasties or listening to disreputable music. Most of my entertainment comes from the horror genre - it’s not that I’m closed minded, it’s just nothing else I read or watch seems to satisfy the itch in quite the same way. Although I must say that I have a pretty wide definition of horror.
MW: When did the writing start and what spurred it for you?
SH: I’ve always been writing. I remember as a kid scribbling silly little werewolf stories in old exercise books. In the horror boom of the eighties, I’d read pulp horror novels with fantastically lurid covers, and I’d think, “I can do better than this”. Despite my love of the genre, I felt there was something missing from the stuff I was reading – characters that didn’t gel with me, story arcs that seemed formulaic, and a strangely prudish morality. I set out to write something that was purely for me – the horror I was yearning for. I began writing novels in the nineties – I worked part time to give myself time to write, and I was following the traditional route. Then I had a series of misfortunes that made it feel as though the sky had fallen in. I stopped writing, reading and watching movies for a few years. Thankfully, I got my life back on track and began writing again about a year ago – the ideas never went away. Nowadays there are fewer barriers to expression, and I’m a huge advocate of the indie publishing revolution.
MW: Which character did you identify with the most? I’m assuming Bram but I did like the way that Cass drifted in and out of the narrative.
SH: In a strange way, I identified with all of the characters – I was going to say good and bad, but I don’t see them as good and bad, just people motivated by different impulses. Bram isn’t me, but I wanted an English character in there as a sort of uninitiated, impartial observer. He’s like the researcher part of me, trying to make sense of the conflict and horror, hearing explanations and justifications from all sides and attempting to sort right from wrong.
MW: I saw you mention that you had an ‘ideal cast’ for a potential movie. Can you run through this - and why you chose them?
SH: When I write, I feel as though I’m directing a movie in my own head. Books are better than movies because they have so much more depth, so many more dimensions. I think ‘Phoenix’ would make an excellent film (Apocalypse Now meets The Stand!) - but I would say that, wouldn’t I? The cast list came about from the ‘Next Big Thing’ internet meme that did the rounds – one of the set questions was who would you cast in a film version of your novel. I had great fun with that. Casting Bram was difficult – although when writing the book I had a strong vision of him as a young John Savage. In the end, I went for Orlando Bloom! He doesn’t physically resemble Bram, but he has a naïve yet tough quality that seemed to match the character. I wish I was more familiar with Vietnamese cinema, but I’m not, so I ‘cast’ Korean actors. Choi Min-Sik would make an excellent Hoan. He looks like someone’s uncle, but after watching ‘Oldboy’, you wouldn’t want to fuck with him! Lee Young-Ae (star of Lady Vengeance) had to be Qui –a fragile beauty who’d slit your throat when your back’s turned. I hadn’t a clue who would play Lightning Boy – then I came across an image of Anthony Mackie (Hurt Locker), and thought “that’s the bloke I had in my head when I was writing this”. Kim I always envisaged as Devon Aoki (Miho in Sin City) – that one was easy. I think Devon’s half Japanese, (whereas Kim is half Vietnamese) but she has that cool Asian/European look. Every movie should have Danny Trejo in it, but coincidentally, he’d make a great Venosa (although they’d have to remove one of his arms!).
MW: An Englishman writing an action-thriller-horror novel set in the depths of Vietnam and covering eight years of that war - that’s an unusual angle to take, isn’t it?
SH: At the risk of sounding like a ‘Carry On’ character, I love an unusual angle. ‘Action-thriller-horror’ sums up my work pretty well, Mark, but I love to play with convention, turn things on their head, upset the formula – just one of the reasons that independent publishing is for me. A ‘normal’ publisher would scratch their head and say “how am I going to market this?” In fact, it wouldn’t get that far, as they just plain wouldn’t take it in the first place!
MW: How much research did you do? Everything about it felt real to me and your depiction of the country - the noise, the smell, the oppressive heat and humidity- was superbly well sustained.
SH: I’m glad you felt that way. I did LOADS of research, so hopefully it paid off. I first started reading about Vietnam many years ago, after watching ‘Platoon’ and realising I knew absolutely nothing about the Vietnam War. I became hooked, and read everything I could get my hands on. As soon as I decided to write a novel set in Vietnam, the reading ramped up. I researched everything – politics, geography, history, travel, folklore, war stories, military hardware. I read biographies, autobiographies and fiction. I watched war films, documentaries, travelogues. Ate, slept, breathed Vietnam. It took me over a year. I love researching for books – I know a lot of writers hate it. I often feel like a fraud spending so much time researching instead of writing, but I feel it brings a depth to a book that wouldn’t ordinarily be there. I like to sit down to write knowing my head is full of everything I need to do the job. When you decide on a plot, you use your existing knowledge and preconceptions – the research highlights things you wouldn’t have known, creates sparks that light fires in the narrative. If I find out something I didn’t know, and think ‘wow’, or ‘really?’, then incorporating those elements into the story hopefully transfers that feeling to the reader.
MW: How’s the book being received?
SH: Once people take the plunge, it’s being well received. Reviews are all good so far – they all go along the lines of, “I wouldn’t normally read something like this, but I really enjoyed it’! Although set in the midst of a conflict zone, it’s a horror story rather than a war story. Once people get past that, they’re fine. Discoverability is really difficult for writers at the moment though, particularly because of preconceptions about independent publishing. And getting a book reviewed is nigh on impossible –I applaud those hardworking reviewers and bloggers who give up their free time to comment on what they’ve read, but they’re buried under to-be-read piles even bigger than my own, and there’s little room for new stuff (especially if it’s strange Vietnam War set horror!)
MW: Now I remember a lot of this from a conversation over breakfast at FCon 2012, but can you tell us a little about where PunkLit came from?
SH: Okay, have you got a soapbox? I’m not anti mainstream publisher, but I remember the nineties, when I feel the horror genre was poorly served by the publishing industry. They turned their back on it as ‘not commercially viable’, or were embarrassed by association with it. Many great writers (some of them friends of mine) lost their contracts.
I love Punk Rock. It came from the streets, rejected the mainstream and gave a voice to those who’d been ignored for too long. Punks produced noise from the heart, giving shape to emotions that they needed to express, with no one to tell them ‘no’. The music industry flirted with punk, then dropped it because they couldn’t understand it. So the punks went the DIY route years ago, produced and marketed their own work and shaped their genre in any image they saw fit, rather than rely on an industry to create it for them. These DIY pioneers went on to influence bands like Slayer and Metallica – their contribution to genre music was immense. It’s an underground scene and it still thrives. Technology now means that writers have the same power – there’s no marketing man standing between the writer and his or her audience, to tell them they’re not allowed to express themselves in a certain way. The cream will rise to the top. Those people producing professional work deserve a voice. I hate it when I hear people slagging off self-pubbed writers – there’s a great potential here to develop our genre, yet people are attacking it from within instead of supporting it, instead of encouraging it to become better.
MW: How do you see the future of horror publishing in this country?
SH: I love the way the horror scene is evolving at the moment. And I believe a lot of that is due to the independent publishing boom. Readers are voting with their computer mice, demonstrating that they want the horror that the big publishers have denied them. Horror movies are doing well at the box office. The publishers have sensed this groundswell and picked up some excellent authors, so the genre is being recognised again. But if publishers don’t give us what we want, we’ll get it straight from the writers. The genie is out of the bottle, and no one can force it back in and cork the neck. The scene is vibrant and diverse, providing everything from exuberant trash to high art.
MW: So what’s next for Steve Byrne?
SH: Loads of projects in the pipeline. The result of all that research is that I have material that I’m releasing as Vietnam set short stories to publicise the book – one of them, featuring Lightning Boy, will be appearing in the anthology ‘No Monsters Allowed’ from Dog Horn Publishing soon. Another two will be free on Amazon. Then that’s Vietnam out of my system – I have no desire to be a one trick pony. I’m researching my next novel, set in England this time, and I’ll begin writing it soon. I have five or six plots for novels ready to go after that (one of them weaving Celtic folklore into the Irish Civil War, another featuring Jimi Hendrix and voodoo!). I’m not sure what order I’ll write them in, but I’m looking forward to getting started.
Thanks very much for taking the time for this Steve, I really appreciate it and I'm intrigued to see what comes from you next!
Something monstrous has risen from the ashes of war…
When the US marines enter the hidden village of Mau Giang, they unleash an ancient darkness from within its temple walls. A fearful secret kept for generations by the native Montagnard tribespeople.
Abraham Curtis travels to Vietnam to visit his sister Jenny, an aid worker in Saigon. Together they join a humanitarian convoy into the Central Highlands, where Jenny is to adopt a child orphaned by the conflict.
But the influence of the breached temple is spreading its contagion across the combat zones of Vietnam like gangrene through flesh, and soon it will destroy Bram’s world. Pursued by a bloodthirsty cult, he must search for his missing sister through the war-torn wastelands, his only companions deserters, rebel soldiers and a woman who may not be quite human.
Across the world, protestors line the streets. The battle lines are drawn - war and peace, hawk or dove. Is this the apocalyptic coming of the Man of Blood, prophesised by Nostradamus, or a delusion brought about by Post-traumatic Stress? On panic filled streets, during the Fall of Saigon, Bram will find his answer.
Forget truth. Forget innocence. There are only casualties.