Interview with Paul Southern – Author of Daddy Dearest

Following an induced labour some time in the 1960s (due date: Halloween night), I had my subscription to a normal life revoked by itinerant parents, who moved from city to city. Lived in Liverpool, Belfast, London and Leeds, then escaped to university, where I nearly died of a brain haemorrhage. After an unexpected recovery, formed an underground indie group (Sexus). Met the lead singer through standing on a bee. Made immediate plans to become rich and famous, but ended up in Manchester. Shared a house with mice, cockroaches, and slugs; shared the street with criminals. Five years later, hit the big time with a Warners record deal. Concerts at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Melody Maker front cover, Smash Hits Single of the Week, Radio 1 and EastEnders. Mixed with the really rich and famous. Then mixed with lawyers. Ended up back in Manchester, broke. Got a PhD in English (I am the world’s leading authority on Tennyson’s stage plays), then wrote my first novel, The Craze, based on my experiences of the Muslim community. Immediately nominated to the Arena X Club (the name Arena magazine gave to a select group of creative, UK-based men responsible for shaping the way their readers lived and enjoyed their lives). Wrote a second book, Brown Boys in Chocolate, which predicted the London bombings. Fell foul of the censors and subsequently gagged by the press. Got ITV interested in a story on honour killings and inter-racial marriages and was commissioned to write a screenplay (Pariah) based on my life story. ITV balked at the content. Subsequently, trod the Wasteland before finding the grail again: a book deal with children’s publisher, Chicken House. Killing Sound, a YA horror set on the London Underground, was published by them in September 2014. The book, originally written for older teens (16+) and adults, was censoriously edited by the publishers to fit a much younger demographic, and inevitably failed to reach either market; the grail proved elusive and I returned to writing something it was impossible to dilute. Daddy Dearest, a dark, psychological thriller, was released in 2016.

 

What first made you want to write?

To be honest, I can’t remember! I was in in a pop group for many years, so I came to writing relatively late. Most of the musicians I admired were of the art school variety so were often quoting from writers like John Rechy or Hunter S. Thompson or Rimbaud. Words in a book always seemed to have a particular resonance with me. I was also a voracious reader, so there was always an affinity with books and writing. I had no idea where I was going with my first novel, just that it was a story I had to tell. I had a vague idea I wanted it to be controversial and that idea of operating in the margins has never really left me. The book was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger and my literary career, such as it is, took off from there.

As Daddy Dearest is not your first book, can you tell us a little about the others?

Yes, the first book was called The Craze and was a violent, multicultural thriller set in Manchester. It was informed by my experiences of the Muslim community in the city and dealt with many issues I thought it was important to talk about, but soon realised there was a reason why nobody talked about them! Critics saw it as a cross between James Ellroy and Irvine Welsh, which was quite flattering, but my real inspiration was Camus’ L’Étranger. I followed it up with a novel about gay wrestling, Pakistani prostitutes and terrorism called Brown Boys in Chocolate, themes which I now fully appreciate were unlikely to catch the public imagination. I did a bit of writing for TV after that. My third book was called Killing Sound, a supernatural horror story set on the London Underground, which explored the effects and implications of infrasound, a real life phenomena. I thought it would do very well – it is magnificently gothic and scary and, in its original incarnation, sexy – but it was mismanaged by the publishers and failed to do anything.

What inspired you to write Daddy Dearest?

It was my little girl, actually. She used to the call the lift in the block of flats where I live as a matter of course. And one day, she got in without me. I managed to get my hand between the doors before they shut. It was that image of her in the lift that I most remember, looking out at me. A second later, she would have been gone. The idea of your child suddenly being cut off from you, trapped like that, filled me with every kind of dread. Every parent who has been in a busy shopping centre with their kids knows the feeling when they suddenly look round and can’t see them. For those first few seconds, your world just stops. The thought of them without you, defenceless, wandering around, looking for you, is really the worst feeling you can have. You spend your life protecting them, taking care of them, and suddenly they are gone. What happens to them next is down to the kindness or malevolence of strangers. Or blind chance.

There’s some really good descriptions of OCD in the book, have you had experience with the issue?

I don’t have it as bad as the narrator in the book, but I have it bad enough to know how crippling it can be and how it can strike at any moment. It hangs round in the shadows, waiting for tiredness and stress to weaken me and then, BANG, I’m in its clutches, arranging furniture at 4 in the morning. I’ve had it since I was a child and it shows no sign of going away, sadly.

What’s your favourite part of the book?

The favourite part of all my books is the end, when I can say finally goodbye to it. I go through a ridiculous amount of drafts so the story is literally in your head for a year and a half. It’s like listening to the same song over and over again. That said, I remember feeling Daddy Dearest was both compelling and moving as I wrote it and that is usually a very good combination!

Do you have a favourite character? Can you relate to any of the characters?

You have to relate to the characters, even the unpleasant ones, otherwise how can you expect the reader to? It is sometimes a very difficult thing to do, particularly with someone like the narrator in Daddy Dearest. It was very difficult living with him. Some people have said it is very hard to warm to his arrogance and anger (I’ve had quite a few emails since it was released complaining about the things he says), but there is ingenuity there, too, and I’m guessing, despite the huge flaws in his character, that people would recognise a bit of themselves in him, however unpalatable.

Are you working on anything right now?

I am working on an adult supernatural thriller called Pendle Fire, set in Pendle in Lancashire (a northern town synonymous with witchcraft), about a police officer and a social worker getting caught up in a chilling and harrowing child prostitution ring that seems to have links to an apocalyptic, end of the world cult.

Do you have any words for aspiring authors?

The only lesson worth remembering, really, is ‘be very persistent’, although I would add the following postscript. When you’re on the outside of the publishing industry, looking in, you may think that everybody on the inside, all those glamorous agents and editors, have an idea what they’re doing. With very rare exceptions, this is not the case. They have no idea if your book is good or not, whether it will sell or won’t. If they had this knowledge, every book they signed would be successful. They aren’t. A lot of crap gets signed up; a lot of good stuff remains unpublished. Editors and agents are all running around looking at what others have signed up, wondering if they are missing out on something. So, don’t despair if they miss out on yours. Rejection shouldn’t devalue your work any more than if you let your cat have a look at it.

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