This interview was carried out in 1996 by kind arrangement of Hodder at the time of release of Sister Night and the paperback release of Nightworld.
Keith B Walters: So, do you come here often?
F.Paul Wilson: This is my third time in England. I was last over for the World Fantasy Convention in ’88.
My father was born here, so I have roots here.
Okay, if I may begin with a confession; I haven’t as yet read Sister Night (Since this interview I have and it’s a cracking read), but I have concentrated on the set of six paperbacks before me, and I hope that I received these in the order that I should have read them!
The first one, The Keep, has a quote at the beginning by the character of Magda; ‘I’ll still be alive in a way’, she mentions poetry or music as a way of ensuring a kind of immortality through work. Do you see your writing and your career as your own quest for immortality?
FPW: You hope for it.
Not so much going on forever, but that when you’re dead, someone may pick up one of your books.
Also, with horror fiction, if you can do it effectively, if you can get the pulse going, get them a little upset, in a sense you’ve reached beyond the grave and squeezed their adrenals and that is, in a sense, a way of staying alive.
KBW: I’ve heard it said of other writers that part of the thrill of writing is the fact that at any moment it is likely that somebody somewhere in the world is reading your work.
FPW: You hope!
It’s always nice to be walking along a beach and see someone reading one of your books.
That’s much more of a thrill than seeing your book sitting on a shelf in a bookstore.
KBW: Do you get recognized?
FPW: No. Most of my books don’t have my face on them.
As a matter of fact I was just in Forbidden Planet, standing next to a poster with my face on it and nobody recognized me.
Let me take it to the extreme; Stephen King – that’s a nightmare. He can’t go anywhere.
KBW: Do you envy King for his ‘production line’ and all its spin-offs?
Do you envy his success, or is that not as far as you’d like to take things?
FPW: I envy him to the extent that he is basically now able to write whatever he wants. I envy him that. I don’t need that much money – he can’t even spend the interest on the money!
Sure, you’d love to be independently wealthy from the writing and then receive more freedom to write what you want and to have more time.
Me, I could quit my practice.
The thing I envy most is that he can write something like Dolores Claiborne, which is totally off the track of anything else he’s written before, or of what people expect of him.
He’s free to do that.
KBW: Do you worry though that, if you had that level of success and freedom, that your work would suffer? I’ve heard it said that King could give the rights to his shopping list and somebody would buy it.
FPW: Well, what happens is that publishers are afraid to edit you, because you’re so big, no one dares to say ‘excuse me, Mr King, chapter ten shouldn’t be there’, and I think that hurts the work, it hurts the writer.
You can’t think that everything you write is good.
The thing is, if you’re hung over the word processor or typewriter for months, you really lose perspective on the work.
But, there are writers who just think ‘I don’t want to cut at all, I can’t take anything out’.
Maybe I’m not a writer, maybe I’m just a storyteller, I want to tell the most effective story.
Now if someone can tell me that this undercuts the book and I look at it and say ‘Yes, you’re right’, I will change it.
FPW: You are very fortunate!
KBW: Oh really? I thought I’d read that you welcomed its existence, but that it’s not quite as you envisioned it.
FPW: I hated it.
It never had a theatrical release in England, but it is on videotape.
The first thirty minutes are pretty good, there is some wasted film there, lots of shots of close-ups of eyeballs and matches being struck.
Later on it just falls apart.
It deviates from the sacred text of the novel.
That’s when Mann learned to stick to the book for future projects.
I wished he’d learned it one film earlier, The Keep was prior to Manhunter and The Last of the Mohicans – he did fairly faithful adaptations to both of those.
KBW: How much involvement did you have with the film?
I was over in Shepperton Studios and I watched an afternoon of filming, during which I think they got 20 seconds of film.
At that point they were doing something straight out of the book, so I was feeling pretty good when I left.
That was during my first trip to England, I guess that was about ’82.
KBW: In The Tomb you have dates, nineteen-eighty dates, but none of them have an end digit to them…?
FPW: Oh yeah.
I didn’t really want to date the book. Right now I’d want to change it. I just didn’t want to put a date in there, but I felt compelled to do it because of all the jumping back to the Raj.
KBW: There is a section in the book in which there are the following two descriptions; ‘the boy went down in a spray of crimson’ and ‘a red flower bloomed on the fabric of his tunic’. That section of the book, that battle, seemed as though you were turning to nature for ways to describe the ways that these people were dying – was that the intention?
FPW: I don’t know.
You know, I was just seeing, you know, the blood spreading out like a flower opening. No, there was nothing conscious as far as looking into what you said there.
KBW: You’re obviously a big fan of movies and The Tomb mentions James Whale’s films. Are they particular favourites of yours?
FPW: Very much so.
The Bride of Frankenstein is one of my all-time great favourite movies. I just love the way he (Whale) would mix pathos and terror and humour and use of certain stock characters like Una O’Connor and all that, they are great movies. I liked Dr Pretorius played by Ernest Thesiger, he stole the movie. There was a wonderful scene when he and the monster were sitting there and having a conversation with that skull, I thought that was great.
KBW: You are still a practicing Physician. So, with that in mind and moving on to The Touch, do you share the medical view of your central character, Dr Alan Bulmer? In the beginning of the book he is picking on the fact that medical work has become dehumanized, that people are talking of operating on an organ rather than on a patient – Do you share that view?
FPW: Yes, I do.
I think that whole thing is a product of specialisation. Unfortunately it’s almost inevitable with the expansion of medical expansion of medical knowledge, that no one can know everything about medicine like they could do even fifty years ago – like you could say, read everything that was written in terms of science fiction. But now, in order to be an expert, you’ve got to narrow your focus, but in narrowing your focus you start treating ‘Joe’s heart’ instead of ‘Joe’ – who has heart disease. It really is a real problem in medicine nowadays. One of the problems of being a general practitioner is well, you can treat Joe – who has a bad heart – but there is no way of knowing everything about cardiology to treat any of the more serious complications that you couldn’t treat in the past. Now you can treat them, but there is no way you could absorb everything you needed to know, so you refer him to the specialist. Hopefully you can become captain of the ship and keep the human element in there while he’s under the cardiologist’s care and then he’ll come back to you and you can treat the whole person again. It’s frustrating when they come back and tell you that they seem to feel that they have been treated like meat, in the sense of people who have never seen you before and will never see you again and they are basically treating Joe as a heart problem, a medical problem, not a person.
KBW: I was actually very surprised to find out that you are not a full time writer.
FPW: I need to do both.
KBW: Is that so you get some sort of balance, or is it due to time? Could you not fill the other time writing?
FPW: Maybe I could.
I think the writing makes me a better Doctor, and I think being a Doctor makes me a better writer. I’m in contact with people all the time, I meet a lot of different types of people and have an intimate knowledge of their lives which they don’t tell anybody else. You see them when they are afraid and when they are at their most vulnerable.
I think it helps with my characters, it helps me keep the humanity in my work and the other thing is that writing is now fun for me. Even though I make more money writing than I do as a Doctor, writing is fun, it’s my golf game. It would become work if I quit medicine.
FPW: Yes. I usually outline, I usually like to know where the book’s going to end up. I will often change the course of how I’m going to get there, but I know that I will get there. Because my writing time is precious, I don’t want to get two hundred pages into a book to find that I don’t know where it’s going or that I’m lost – that would be a major catastrophe for me.
I like to leave books open, not because I had any intentions of doing anything more with the characters, trust me – this is the truth! I like to leave them open because I like it when you close the book and you’re thinking, you’re still thinking about it, rather than tie up all the threads and you close the book and say ‘Oh, that’s done’. I’d rather have you close the book, turn out the lights and say ‘Jeez, I wonder what happens, I wonder if Alan’s going to get all his senses back?’ – To me that keeps the book alive and keeps the reader just a little bit longer, I guess I’m loathe to let go!
KBW: With the final scene in The Touch, where Alan’s heading towards Jeffy, about to touch him, did you put yourself in that position? Knowing that the touch is damaging himself, did you stop and think ‘what would I do?’
FPW: I think he wasn’t all there at that point.
There was a question as to who was in control, even from the beginning. I think that became a fixed idea and, as he lost a lot of other parts of his consciousness, his mind so to speak, that thought remained there and became a sort of obsession. Even though he was a noble character, I don’t know if he was that noble!
Jim Stevens at the beginning of the book – you mention that his early attempts at writing horror fiction and that Doubleday Publishers tell him they don’t think it’s such a good idea. Is that in any way autobiographical? Did you have similar dealing s when you started out?
FPW: No. I wrote Science Fiction at first and Doubleday was the first publisher I sent my novel to, and they bought it. But, in the nineteen sixties, before Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, you could not sell a horror novel. You wouldn’t even think about writing a supernatural type of horror novel. I was trying to hint that there was some sort of evil in there, I was trying to hint at horror.
KBW: So, when you started out, how much had you submitted before you became published?
FPW: I wrote short stories for years, we had a reading circle class at school and for it I wrote a haunted house story in fact. One day the reading circle teacher came over and I asked if I could read my own story, I’d only written half of it so that was what I read. The teacher could tell that I hadn’t finished it so she said to finish it and the come back and read the rest. But, as we were straightening our chairs away and getting up, kids were coming up to me and asking ‘what happened? What happened to the guy? What happened?’ and I thought ‘I’ve got ‘em’. I had this sort of power!
I think I can trace the desire to write back to, well obviously I had the desire or I wouldn’t have written in the first place, but something was there then and I wanted to keep doing it. I got rejected, I can do the literal papering the walls with rejection letters. I was very methodical about this though – I’d get a rejection from one magazine and straight away I’d turn it around and send the work to another and so on. The first story I sold to John Campbell of Analog magazine was a science fiction story but it ended up with the guy being eaten alive by rats, so you can see I was always putting a little bit of horror into things!
KBW: With regards to the series of six books we have here, were they published in the correct order originally?
FPW: Well the first three books were not meant to be related, I had no idea that I would be linking them up later. They were published in the order they were written basically.
Sister Night was written in the middle of Reprisal. I’d been thinking about the idea for years and suddenly I was down in Baltimore on a medical thing and was up in my room alone at night, just watching tv, and I was thinking about that plot. The last twist suddenly came in and I just jumped up and started scribbling things down. By the time I got home the whole story was right there in my head. I got to it and typed it out in seven weeks, which has never happened to me – ninety thousand words in seven weeks, that was like taking dictation, that book was like a gift. Almost for that reason, it’s my favourite novel, plus I like all the twists and turns in it.
FPW: I always call them The Nightworld Cycle. John Klute and Peter Nicholls did that new Science Fiction Encyclopedia and they referred to it as The Adversary Books – I sort of like that, so I might start calling them The Adversary Cycle.
KBW: Are they to be re-issued in bookstores all together, because without actually reading in depth, the order and the relationship between the books is not clear?
FPW: I don’t know if they’ll actually change.
Reborn, Reprisal and Nightworld are really one novel and maybe it wasn’t fair to break them up, but unless you’re Stephen King you can’t do thousand page novels, especially if it’s horror.
Maybe it really wasn’t fair in leaving people hanging around for about a year between each book. But I was looking down the line to the release of Nightworld, by which time it really wouldn’t matter because you could then go into bookstores and pick up the whole deal. I was looking at the long run.
FPW: There is always the Frankenstein worry with genetic research.
For instance, they’ve located the gene which causes bowel cancer and, if they can find a marker for it, if they can identify it, then people will know if they are at risk. Other people who’ve been worried about it because three people in their family have died from colon cancer, can stop worrying.
Take ovarian cancer, which has a very high genetic relationship, you don’t have to have the vaginal ultrasound every six months. That’s the kind of things and changes that genetic research is going to do.
Even the Frankenfruit – genetically altered produce which doesn’t rot as fast, why would you be afraid of that?
When you think of all the hunger in the world, if you can keep things from rotting you can give fresh vegetables to people who need it! Even Jurassic Park is sort of a warning about it, to me that’s a kind of yellow journalism.
KBW: Would you give the green light to somebody to make films of any of the other books?
FPW: Oh yeah!
The Tomb was optioned by New World Pictures, they had the script done, the script was absolutely horrible – they moved Jack to Pasadena, he didn’t belong in Pasadena at all! But a British movie called The Tomb came out at about that time in its development and they really wanted to use the title The Tomb, even though there is no tomb in the book. Once New World Pictures got the bad script and then lost the title, they lost interest. Reborn has been optioned for a theatrical movie, The Touch has been optioned for a tv movie-of-the-week, but….you know…
KBW: You say that The Tomb wasn’t your title, have any of the others changed?
FPW: The Tomb was changed against my will.
My title was Koshi and they said ‘we’re getting retailer resistance to that title because it’s a foreign word’. They wanted to have a building on the cover and they wanted a two word title starting with ‘The’. They couldn’t call it The Temple because it would sound like some Jewish novel. Finally they came out with The Tomb and I said that there was no Tomb in it, and they said ‘well, no one’s gonna mind!’.
KBW: Another theme that is quite strong, particularly in one scene which is very graphic, is the anti-abortion subject. You have a family of your own – was that your point of view coming across there?
FPW: I don’t know if it was anti-abortion, but yes I am against abortion. I see great value in human life. To me it is killing another human being. I don’t care if you say it’s not a real human being until the eighteenth week or the twelfth week, it’s all arbitrary. It’s got forty-six human chromosomes, I just think it’s a legalism. I’m not religious, it has nothing to do with the Pope, I’m a devout agnostic, life is just precious to me. That’s one of the reasons I’m in medicine.
KBW: The reference to Rosemary’s Baby is obviously very strong, is that from the film, the book, or both? Or is it just a the theme that appealed to you?
FPW: Basically , I didn’t want to do another Omen or Rosemary’s Baby, therefore I used the Anti-Christ as a kind of red herring but I wanted another evil entity to be incarnate, so to speak. This is how it became linked to The Keep. I was wracking around for some evil entity when I said ‘Jeez, I have one in The Keep. I can bring him back, he’s been reincarnated before’. So when I did that, I also said we’ll set it in a small town, but near enough to New York, where I can get into the city. Then I thought, I’ve got a town just like that in The Touch, so if I bring in the other book I can make this a nice full circle. But all this would require a third book. I’d originally planned one book, but eventually my first thoughts for the new book had to be divided into two books and then an extra book, Nightworld, was required to finish it all off.
KBW: With Reprisal, did you decide in the early stages of Reborn not to mention Rasalom, leaving his named return for the following book?
FPW: Yes, I didn’t want to make such an obvious link to The Keep, I wanted it to grow as it went on. It was just not ready in that part of the story to reveal who he was. I laid a lot of hints in there through some of the other characters to carry through to the next book.
KBW: How much involvement do you have in the book-jacket designs?
Actually I shouldn’t say that. I’m thinking of America.
Art departments in America are very independent, even the editors have very little input. Here, I must say, I get more input from my British Publisher than any other. They always send me cover proofs, they ask me for my approval. I’ve never really had any real qualms with them. I thought that the cover for The Keep was a ‘killer cover’ – it certainly grabs the eye, and I like the way the foiled lettering has all the little crosses within it.
KBW: Okay, well that leaves Nightworld. Thank you for all the movie lists throughout the book, I’ve certainly got some catching up to do.
FPW: They all came out of the Psychotronic Movie Guide.
KBW: So are they all favourites of yours?
FPW: No, I chose them for the theme. They had to do with night or the end of the world or something that had to do with Jaws, or that type of thing. As things went on, they get darker and darker towards the end, there is even one film called Nightworld! I had a lot of fun composing those lists, but it was also a lot of work, typing out all the dates and the producers and all that kind of stuff. Joe Bob Briggs is on Saturday nights on cable with a drive-in movie show. He is a real person, so he’s kind of an expert on these things.
KBW: Was the radio station made up or does that exist too?
FPW: It’s a real radio station, Joe and Freddy are Flo and Eddie who were DJs on another station in New York City and they happen to be fans of the books, so I gave them a little tip of the hat.
KBW: Was it very difficult to kill off some of the characters after staying with them so long?
FPW: Yes, it was, it was.
The toughest killing I had to write was little Danny – it took me three months to sit down and type that out. I was sick, but in order to destroy the priest I had to take away his entire support system, everyone he loved. That was tough.
Killing Alan, I had a lump in my throat. But, when you fight a war it’s unrealistic to think that everyone’s going to be sitting around having a drink at the end. There are going to be casualties in any war.
One of the questions in Nightworld is that there’ll be the person who’ll be stomping on the little old lady to get the last can of beans and there’ll be the person who’s not – In that situation, which one are you gonna be? Alan was an example of the nobler end, Carol’s new husband was at the other end and so were the State cops and so on.
In a sense it served two purposes, there are casualties in any battle worth fighting, and try asking the question in different ways – what side do you fall on?
KBW: Do you have any regrets about any aspect of the writing of this series of books?
FPW: I probably should have written them in a different order.
It might have been better if I’d written The Touch, The Tomb and then The Keep, for more of a crescendo effect.
But, no. No regrets. I can’t open any of my books without wanting to change paragraphs, but that’s because these were written over a ten year period and I’m a different writer now than when I started. Hopefully these six books will be part of my little bit of immortality, I think they’re quite unique in horror fiction, that there is an epic, cosmic scale to them, they are a self contained series of novels that can be read individually or also all interlinked.
KBW: What can we expect from you in the future?
FPW: Smaller scale horror.
Sister Night is a much smaller scale, almost claustrophobic when compared to these books. But, if something cosmic occurs to me again, I’m certainly not going to shy away from it.
KBW: Is the F of F Paul Wilson a close kept secret?
FPW: Oh no. It’s for Francis.
I’ve never been called Frank or Francis. My father was always the Frank of the family, so I was called by my second name.
Thanks to F.Paul Wilson for giving his time and illuminating discussion of his work and thanks for Hodder for the arrangement of the interview.
This interview originally featured in the Cinema, movie and books fanzine, Anything Goes.
Thanks to Steve Langton (editor of Anything Goes) for agreement for its re-use here.