Gary Murning is the author of If I Never, out from Legend Press. From Middlesborough, he’s been writing seriously for 22 years. His work, largely literary fiction, focuses on themes that touch us all — love, death, loss and aspiration — but always with an eye to finding an unusual angle or viewpoint. Quirky and highly readable, his writing aims to entertain first and foremost. If he can also offer a previously unfamiliar perspective or insight, all the better.
A sample of If I Never is available here
Gary was kind enough to answer some fairly varied questions for me, on everything from the state of literary fiction to what it means to be an author in the North of England.
I notice that you started off writing horror. How do you feel about the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction? Are there genre books that you’d think of as “literature” (whatever that is, and you’d think I’d know, being the fiction editor of a literary zine, but I don’t).
There’s always a problem with the words “literary fiction”, isn’t there? It’s quite often perceived as snobby and elitist to describe one’s work that way — but for me it’s simply a convenient way of avoiding having to be too specific about the kind of fiction I write! My writing doesn’t neatly fit any of the genre pigeonholes. Quite often it’s heavily character driven (the best marker for the difference between genre and literary, in my opinion; genre is heavily plot driven, literary isn’t… on the whole!) with a strong theme, should the reader choose to go looking for it.
But, of course, genre fiction can also have all of these things — and more. I read genre fiction in the same way that I read literary fiction, and quite often find very similar things in both. Some genre fiction, of course, is pure trash. But have you read some of the stuff calling itself literary fiction these days? Trash transcends genre!
You know, I cut my literary teeth on writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker et al. Without those guys I might never have felt passionate enough about the written word to get started. And, yes, there is much good quality, for want of a better “literary”, fiction in there. Some of King’s novellas (those in Different Seasons, for example) are mini-masterpieces. Straub had some very fine moments (although his work tends to be patchy) and Barker, in spite of his excesses (or perhaps because of them!), made me want to stretch myself.
Anyone, writer or otherwise, who restricts himself to reading purely “literature” is making a huge mistake, in my humble opinion.
Possibly more to the point, what’s the difference when it comes to writing for them?
I don’t think there is a difference. Or if there is, I’m not at this precise moment sure what it is…. Speaking purely for myself, I have to outline both thoroughly before writing, these days. I’m concerned in both with having pace, strong characters and something original to say.
It’s at moments like this that I normally refer to the Neil Gaiman short story “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”. Are there any novels or short stories that have particularly encapsulated the difference for you?
Looking back at my writing roots I’d probably say some of Richard Laymon’s early writing best encapsulates for me what pure genre was. I never read that much of his work but what I did was very stripped down and to the point. 100% entertainment, making no demands of the reader whatsoever. Vivid and, whilst not exactly stylish, good at what it was meant to do.
You’ve been doing the majority of your publicity for If I Never online. In theory, it should be possible to connect to almost anyone. Have you found it that way in practice?
Well I did try to sell Richard Branson a copy of If I Never the other day, so, yes it is possible to connect with almost anyone. Whether you get a response, of course, well, that’s a different matter entirely. (And, that I know of, no, he didn’t buy a copy! Probably a bit strapped for cash.)
Seriously, though, it does have huge potential. I’m very much at the beginning of the whole process but, based on my experience so far, it seems to me that with time and application it can be made to work. As I see it, it’s very much about getting in people’s line of vision and, if they find you and what you do interesting, providing them with as many ways to keep up to date as possible. This isn’t just about If I Never, for me; it’s about ensuring that the readers I attract with this first novel stay with me and bring others along with each book I write. As with most things, I don’t think it’s something that happens overnight. It’s about steady growth and then, possibly, hitting the knee of the curve — given enough interest and time.
Do small literary sites contribute anything meaningful to the development of writers? (well obviously I had to ask that).
Absolutely nothing at all…. Kidding! I think websites like this are vital. I do think that there’s a lot of rubbish talked about writing out there — I have to be honest about that — but writing is such a solitary pastime that, especially when the writer’s starting out, this kind of support network, information source etc plays a huge role… maybe not individually but, you know, the cumulative effect is considerable.
From my own point of view, promoting If I Never, they’re certainly proving very important. Maybe each interview on these sites will only pull in one or two new readers — but do enough of them and that really starts to add up. And, of course, at this stage it is difficult to get any other kind of coverage. Yes, I’m managing to get in some newspapers/magazines, but it’s tough. Without websites like this writers like me would be well and truly stuffed.
Has your ongoing blog influenced your writing/publication/publicity experiences as much as you thought it might? With so much content on the internet, is there a danger that individual authors become lone voices buried among millions of others?
I don’t think my blog had any direct influence on my writing — and it certainly didn’t help me achieve publication. I started it, really, as another way of reaching people. I wanted to move out of my comfort zone a little and start writing as me for a change, sharing my ideas and opinions directly rather than through the filter of fictional characters. It did certainly provide the opportunity to share snippets of my work and my approach — and it continues to do so — but it required a lot of work. If you don’t post daily, and comment on other people’s blogs, forget it. You aren’t going to build up a significant readership.
I think we are all by definition lone voices buried among millions of others! But there is still some important stuff being said out there and, quite often, it does get heard. I think it’s simply a question of whether or not the individual wants to participate. Sometimes you just have to shout along with everyone else and hope that someone hears you.
From what I’ve had chance to read, your main character Price starts out as quite easily manipulated. What’s the oddest thing you’ve been talked into against your better judgement?
Tough question! I don’t often get talked into anything these days. Very set in my ways and pretty pigheaded! Someone did say to me, once, though… “Why don’t you write a novel? — You’ll be a millionaire by the time you’re twenty-five!” Does that count?
There also seems to be a note of humour underlying what could potentially be quite a bleak relationship between Price and George. Was that something you included consciously?
Yes, I find it very difficult to write without there being humour of one kind or another. Quite often, it’s of the gallows variety, but, yes, it’s very nearly always there. I very rarely play it for laughs, however; more often than not it simply grows out of the characters and their relationships…. Saying that, there is one scene in particular in If I Never where I did very deliberately have fun (let’s just say it involves a car chase between a Porsche 911 and an Austin Allegro and leave it at that!)
More broadly, as a writer from the North of England, do you ever feel the need to react to the usual stereotype of northern writing as “gritty”. Is there a distinctive feel to northern writing?
No. Or if there is, I’m certainly not a practitioner of it. If I Never can definitely be described as gritty, but I certainly never considered it to be a “northern” novel — and, hand on heart, I don’t think it is. Geography is something I rarely consider in my writing. It’s just not important to me
On a related note, how important is a sense of place in your writing? Although If I Never takes place in a clearly defined setting, I kind of got the feeling that the individual character relationships are far more important than the place the story happens. Would that be a reasonable suggestion?
Absolutely! That pretty much encapsulates, as my previous answer suggests, my writing and its importance to me. For example, I make places up. Yes, I occasionally use real locations, but sometimes I just can’t be bothered with having to double check factual road names etc. It seems a complete waste of time — it prevents me from getting to the heart of what my work’s about. Relationships, people dealing with unusual circumstances.
That said, I do like the opportunity to create atmosphere using space and location. For example, I really enjoyed writing the moorland and cave scenes that come later in the novel. Took me back to those earlier attempts at writing horror fiction! Great fun.
Finally, a couple of questions in reference to your comment about matching the old joke on taking twenty years to become an overnight success. Firstly, what changed? Did anything change? Or was it simple persistence? Secondly, the question that no one seems to ask writers at this point- was it worth it? If you could have back all the hours spent slaving over a hot wordprocessor, would there be anything you’d do differently?
Naturally, I’m a very different writer now to the writer I was when I first started out! But, as far as the past five to ten years are concerned, I don’t think that much has changed at all. I think it was really simply a case of finally hitting the right person with the right project at the right time. You keep rolling the dice, sooner or later you’re going to get a seven. I think it really was that simple.
Was it worth it?… Good question and one that deserves an honest answer. I’ve made many sacrifices for my writing. I won’t bore you with the details, but I have a fairly severe physical disability which means I have limited strength and energy. The upshot is, I had to make certain choices along the way. I couldn’t do it all, you know? So, yes, I made sacrifices — and was it worth it? Probably too early to say but… I certainly think so! The past few months have been the most exciting, demanding and interesting I’ve ever known. If that’s as good as it gets, I think I’ll be pretty happy.
Needless to say, however, I’m hoping it just keeps on getting better!