APARTMENT 16 and an interview with Adam Nevill
Apartment 16 has one of the most terrifying endings of any book I've read, and I think the images of what exactly was in apartment 16 will live with me the rest of my life. A terrific book (in the full sense of the word!). I don't usually read horror, but after reading Apartment 16, and listening to and reading a little of the work of Ramsey Campbell, I am now convinced it is a genre well worth further investigation.
Adam Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is also the author of Banquet for the Damned, an original novel of supernatural horror inspired by M.R. James and the great tradition of the British weird tale.
In his working life he has endured a variety of occupations, including from 2000 to 2004 both nightwatchman and porter in the exclusive apartment buildings of west London. He lives in London and can be contacted through his website.
About Apartment 16.
CD: The scenes in Apartment 16 are hugely imaginative - with a horrific vision. Does good horror writing come naturally, or does it come from experience?
AN: Thank you, Clare. I’d say it comes from reading the canon and watching a great many films, and being captivated by the best in the field, and becoming inspired to contribute in an equally affecting way. An unhappy life is not necessarily required, though a sensitivity to looking through a glass darkly probably is. And it’s also about giving into an innate compulsion to go deep and to reimagine the world in a particular way; to try and make sense of the more disturbing elements of experience. And as Lovecraft put it, it’s about trying to create “wonder and awe”. Writing horror comes naturally to some writers all of the time, and some writers some of the time. It’s often non-genre writers who produce great works in the field.
CD: In your work as a nightwatchman or porter did you ever come across an apartment similar to 'Apartment 16'?
AN: Not specifically, but there were times when I was alone at night, or even times during the day shifts, when on what felt like a level of psychic sensitivity, it was possible to become attuned to something uncanny. An almost perceptible memory locked in place that suggested itself in unusual ways.
CD: I thought the characters in Apartment 16 were complex and very convincing - how do you go about building your characters?
AN: Thanks, Clare. Observation, experience and imagination are my three components for creating character. In A16, I would think of set-pieces and introduce characters – sometimes grotesque reinventions and composites of types – and then let them take over the scenes, or suggest new scenes to me. If I can get into the ‘zone’, I often find that characters dictate story.
CD: Art was also an important feature of the book - do you have an interest in art or an artistic background?
AN: I am merely a layman with an interest in art history. But Francis Bacon and Wyndham Lewis appealed to me when I came across them in my teens. Bacon was all about capturing existence at the moment it impacted against his nervous system; which often the exact moment of true terror. And of “unlocking the valves of feeling” to express the deeper nature of things as he perceived them. To me, his work always seemed to articulate the essential horror of humanity and of existence. He found a visual language for terror, madness, self-loathing, entrapment, loneliness, violence, cruelty, incapacity, sexual perversion, damage, futility, death. How could I not find him inspirational?
Lewis was a genius, who reached deep into his own idiosyncratic and brilliant imagination and recreated the world through distortion, with the most complicated, impossible and impenetrable philosophy to back it up. His surviving paintings can be affecting in more subtle ways than Bacon, but are still as profound. Much of his work was lost, probably destroyed, so that was something I explored with my own Felix Hessen. I came across both painters in the art section of a library in my teens and was drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to my dad’s books on Bosch and Brueghel when I was a child. Why there aren’t more fictional expressionist painters in horror fiction is the question I ask. They were often daring to gaze into, and depicting, the very same things as horror writers.
CD: London is conveyed as a menacing, dismal place. Is this your experience of the capital? Or is it partly metaphorical (especially the way it was impossible to leave)
AN: In my experience of the city, and through its psychic overtones, it has been a menacing, dismal place, and still often is. To give some background, from 2000 to the end of 2001 I experienced a period of self-imposed isolation on night shifts, in my first foray into portering, and this period was the genesis of Apartment 16. I was never awake during the day, rarely socialised, and was traumatised by sleep-deprivation; put yourself through that, let your mind turn on itself, and you never know what you will start to imagine. I completely unravelled myself; mortified myself; hovered above a dark and terrifying place at times. But it enabled me to write about another level of horror, fusing the supernatural with madness. I did actually lose my mind at one point back then, and started to hallucinate from sleep loss. Some of the scenes in Apartment 16, when Seth tries to escape from London and his visit to a supermarket are drawn from those experiences. Apartment 16 would not have had the same impact, or carried the same force had I not gone through that difficult period. I wrote fragments of Apartment 16 back then, but weaved them into a coherent narrative much later. But my trying early experiences of London gave me the whole idea of a character glimpsing a radically transformed world, that no one else could see, while the character also wonders whether his vision is a truth, or the evidence of a tormented mind staring back at itself? I was excited by the idea of only being capable of seeing the city as a continually shifting and changing set of Francis Bacon paintings.
I think during my ten years in London, all of them have been something of a struggle – financially, psychically, emotionally, physically. I was once an optimistic, naïve, energetic man who showed up in the city, in a Volkswagen Golf with his entire earthly possessions on the back seat. I’m not that man anymore.
But London is a popular place to lose your mind in; and it can be euphoric too, transporting. My coping mechanism was switching to day shifts in 2002, and reintegrating myself back into a more normal existence. It took about two years to fully recover from that time of night shifts though.
The book was such a loose and amorphous collection of dreams, images, fragments, notes, I produced seventeen drafts over nearly four years up to 2009 in order to make the book internally consistent and fluent. But this book is for real. It was forged in despair and hewn from compulsion.
CD: What would you say was the most important aspect of writing horror - plot or character? Is it possible to write good horror without either?
AN: I’d say the most important thing is the actual writing, the craft. It’s very difficult to make the supernatural believable in a realistic setting. Most attempts are dismal failures. Also, any attempt to deliberately evoke a specific emotion in a reader, is fraught with difficulties. So to transport a reader through fear, or at least through disquiet, or by disturbing them, without becoming ridiculous or overwriting, is not easy. To incrementally disturb the natural order and to insert the uncanny, by building atmosphere and using certain devices, so that the characters and the reader of the novel accept your premise and the unnatural occurrences in your altered world, does require a great deal of application, instinct, study of the masters, and rewriting. The same rules for crafting plot and characterization in any good fiction are the same for horror.
CD: How easy was it to get published?
AN: Easy never came into it. My first novel, Banquet for the Damned, was complete in 2000. I began it in late 1997. But by 2002 every agent who accepted fiction in the Writers and Artists Yearbook had eventually turned down my letter of introduction. I don’t think anyone ever read a word of the actual book. “No horror” being the usual refrain, or “too many authors already”. And as no publisher took unsolicited manuscripts, that was that. Game over. By that time, I’d forsaken a career in television a second time. I was living on a shoe-string (again) and enduring an existence above an old pub in East London and working nights as a security guard. And going mad with sleep deprivation and a sense of despair.
And then my first break … After bringing one of my short horror stories into print, the British horror master Ramsey Campbell recommended I try his English publisher, the small press PS Publishing in 2003. PS Publishing read and accepted Banquet within a week. Without Ramsey and PS, Banquet for the Damned would have remained an uneaten meal, mouldering in the pantry of my hard drive. Had it been the eighties, the story may have been different, but I’d written a big supernatural horror novel in a publishing climate that had no interest in horror. I was bloody lucky to find a sympathetic writer of considerable reputation, and a sympathetic small press publisher in PS. They brought me into print as a writer of supernatural horror.
Apartment 16 took four years to write and during most of that time, little had changed in publishing: no one was publishing horror in the mainstream beyond series fiction and the big names from the seventies. After the book was complete and delivered to my agent early in 2009, publishing had just begun to return its capricious eyes back towards supernatural horror in fiction after the successes of Let the Right One In, and The Birthing House. There was even an auction for my book. How times change.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
AN: No, but apparently I enjoyed eating dried worms and spiders as a baby. I approached dead worms as if eating bacon rind.
CD: What is your proudest moment?
AN: It’s been a long struggle for me as a writer, so any payoff fills me with relief as much as pride. Picking up my author’s copies of Banquet for the Damned, and hearing that Apartment 16 was going to be published by Pan Macmillan made my hands shake …
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
AN: A few I think. Emigrating twice. Reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. Going to university, twice. Getting published.
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
AN: I could be here all day, but very recently, it was a letter I saw written by the Red Cross to relatives of an Australian soldier reported missing in action in the Great War. They have it in the Visitor’s Centre at the Tyne Cot memorial in Belgium. The letter detailed how hearsay amongst the missing soldier’s comrades in a hospital confirmed his death. Someone had seen him lying in the mud, shot through the head, and said: “There’s poor old Pies.” Beside the letter was a photograph of the soldier with his young children on his knees. It seemed symbolic of a terrible war I am amazed anyone actually survived.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
AN: Better rage management.
CD: What is happiness?
AN: A purpose for life with an occasional payoff.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
AN: Drink hot sweet tea, before taking care of business …