Graham Joyce,international award-winning writer
PUBLISHED: 14:43 26 January 2011 | UPDATED: 20:33 20 February 2013
Graham Joyce, the international award-winning writer of 'fantastic' fiction and Honorary Graduate of Derby University, talks to Mike Smith
Back in the seventies, when he was a student at Derbys Bishop Lonsdale College, Graham Joyce showed his friends a scheme that he had drawn up for a novel. One of those present was Daniel Hanson, who recalls: The plot had been worked out in such detail that the plans were virtually three-dimensional. As we listened to Graham explaining his story line, we all realised that he was very serious about becoming a writer.
In the light of this account, it is surprising to learn that Grahams ambitions were largely put on hold for a decade. After leaving college, he took an MA in modern English and American literature at Leicester University and then worked as a youth officer for the National Association of Youth Clubs. The demands of his job meant that he had precious little time to convert his 3D-plan or any of the other stories that were in his head into a book; the most he could achieve was the penning of several poems, one of which won the George Fraser Award. If he was to have any chance of becoming a novelist, he would need to create time to write. Ten years after leaving Derby, he did exactly that.
Deciding that he would devote a year of his life to the task of writing his first novel, Graham gave up the job that had occupied him for eight years, and his girl friend Suzanne followed suit by resigning from her post as a specialist in matrimonial law. The pair then proceeded to get married, even though they had absolutely no prospect of financial stability. They bought a 2CV, which had been carefully selected to withstand the rough terrain of their chosen destination, and set off across Europe to the Greek island of Lesbos, where they acquired a beach shack that had no electricity and no piped water.
Grahams hopes that their island hideaway would be the place where he could find the peace, quiet, space and time needed for his writing were hit by some early setbacks. He recalls: Friends kept arriving, often unannounced, with the aim of sharing our Zorba experience. Although we had a great time, the conditions were not exactly conducive to writing a novel. Whats more, we discovered that our shack was known by the locals as The House of Lost Dreams, which was hardly a good omen.
To discover whether Graham had the motivation to overcome these obstacles and make a Peter Mayle-style success of his year in the sun, it is necessary to look back to his childhood in the mining village of Keresley, near Coventry, and to his student days in Derby. Graham says: In the 1960s, Keresley was not a place where writing was encouraged. In fact, using words of more than one syllable was seen as a sign of affectation. However, I was brought up in a household where fantasy was taken for granted. My grandmother would drift off into imaginings about visitations and then switch back into the real world as if nothing unusual had happened. The rest of the family accepted her behaviour as part of everyday life.
Predictably, young Graham developed a fascination for the relationship between fantasy and reality. He also became a secret writer, largely by compiling reports about the exploits of his local football team in a style that mimicked the hyperbolic vocabulary of tabloid sports journalists. These efforts were not shown to anyone else and his literary talent was never recognised by his schoolteachers. Graham even failed the Eleven-plus examination, for which he had received absolutely no preparation, but he did manage to pick up just enough qualifications at the Nicholas Chamberlaine School in Bedworth to obtain a place to read English and Education at Bishop Lonsdale College in Derby.
When he arrived in the city, Graham found himself in a much more stimulating environment. He was taught by some excellent lecturers, including Derek Palmer, who introduced him to the works of Jonathan Swift and appeared with him in a college production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and Dennis Pitt, who produced the play. He would often visit Derbys art gallery, where he would stare at Joseph Wrights painting of The Alchemist. The darkness and light in the picture reminded him of his grandmothers shuffling between irrationality and rationality, and he would speculate on what might be going on in the dark areas of the painting.
That relationship between fantasy and reality became the obsession that drove Grahams creativity, largely expressed at that time through his poems. However, disillusion with poetry set in when he asked Suzanne to spend their first date at a poetry reading. He recalls, This was not the best way to woo my new girlfriend, not only because the reading was deadly boring, but also because the poet who was speaking that evening wore socks inside his sandals a turn-off, if ever there was one.
Although Graham turned away from poetry, he could not get rid of his imaginative fixations, particularly when he began speculating about the possibility of controlling the events in dreams. There was nothing else for it but to convert his musings about lucid dreaming into a novel and he would simply have to find the time to write that book during his year in Greece.
When the shack in Lesbos became impossibly damp and cold as the winter set in, Graham and Suzanne moved to a house in Crete, where conditions for writing were much better, not only because the building was warm and dry, but also because fewer visitors arrived. Finding that he could now produce up to 3,000 words per day, Graham managed to complete his novel and send it to an agent. Before the year ended, his agent rang with the fantastic news that Dreamside had been accepted by a publisher.
Encouraged by this success, Graham wrote a second book, which was so absurdly ambitious and unstructured that his agent refused to send it to a publisher. Graham says, This humbling experience made me examine novels by established writers. As a result, I learned an important lesson about the supreme importance of structure. It is a crucial piece of advice that I pass on to my creative writing class at Nottingham Trent University, where I now teach a couple of sessions per week.
Having learned his lesson, Graham wrote Dark Sister, a novel about witchcraft and feminism, which was accepted immediately by a publisher. Since then, he has produced a dozen more books, as well as numerous short stories, one of which won the O. Henry Prize. In 1995, Graham broke into the American market with his fifth novel The Tooth Fairy, even though it is set in the English Midlands of his childhood. More recently, he has used his student digs in Peel Street as the setting for Memoirs of a Master Forger, which even has a forged authors name, with Graham taking the highly unusual step of adopting the nom de plume of William Heaney, the narrator in the story.
Another quirky addition to Grahams prolific literary output is the non-fiction book Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular, which was inspired by his experiences as goalkeeper for the English Writers XI, to which he was recruited at the grand old age of 52. Graham also claims that his experiences as a father have had a marked influence on his writing. He and Suzanne finally decided to have children on the day a hare jumped out between Grahams feet. As he points out, the hare is regarded as a fertility symbol.
This anecdote, which connects myth with reality, is indicative of the concerns that dominate Grahams work. Not surprisingly, his novels have been classified as magic realism by some commentators, but they have also been variously described as psychodramas, black comedies and horror stories. As far as Graham is concerned, he is a fractured realist who writes in order to make sense of his life.
As well as writing novels and short stories, Graham has somehow found the time to write English lyrics for the French songstress Emile Simon and the storyline for the video game Doom 4. His accolades include four British Fantasy Awards and one World Fantasy Award, and he has sold the film rights of several of his novels, including his new book, The Silent Land.
Graham is an honorary graduate of the University of Derby, an institution that evolved from his old college. Earlier this year, he was invited back to the campus, where he used the thespian skills acquired during his student days to give a hugely entertaining talk about his life as a prolific author. As his audience realised, that year in Greece has proved to be time well spent.
For more information about Graham Joyce and his work, visit www.grahamjoyce.net