Last week I reviewed horror writer M. J. Wesolowski’s debut novella, The Black Land, newly released by publishing house Blood Bound Books. The book was a chiller and no mistake, oozing atmosphere and rigid with teeth-clenching expectancy. You can read the full review here.
I have been lucky enough to snag the man behind the myth, Wesolowski himself, to answer a few questions about where the inspiration for this nerve-stretching tale came from and on his own journey as a writer.
First of all, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Certainly, I’m 32 years old and from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne where I live with my wife and son. Sorry, not very interesting is it? I should be able to make this sound good, I’m a writer!
When did you first get interested in fiction writing and what pushed you to try it for yourself?
I was always the youngest in my class in school so was quite far behind the others academically and socially during those early years, save for reading which was the one thing I was any good at. Books were a bit of a refuge for me from the complexities of other children…and maths!
When I was about eight, there was old typewriter from the 1970s kicking about the house which wrote in both red and black ink. I had been reading a lot of Famous Five and Secret Seven books and I remember trying to pen my own mystery story, with the novel idea of using the typewriter’s red ink as a ransom note written in blood…I can still remember the inspiration that filled me that day, it’s the same feeling when I get ideas now, that rush in the stomach of something that needs to be written down…
This all probably sound a bit pretentious, but it’s true; the need for writing has always been there…I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to write. Writing has always been a pleasure, a release of sorts…there are simply ideas that bubble up inside me and demand to come out. I don’t think I’ve ever lost that 8 year old boy fascination with blood, guts and gore. Maybe I’m still a bit socially immature!
The Black Land is a fantastically atmospheric book. I have mentioned in my review that the lines between where reality ends and fiction begins are extremely blurred. Where did this idea come from?
When I started The Black Land, my intention was to try and write the next Amityville Horror, one of the most terrifying books I have ever read because as implausible as the story is, Jay Anson’s style makes it sound so believable, like it actually happened (which maybe it did?).
I wanted to capture that, to write something that people would question whether was real as well as the absolute terror that filled me when I read that book when I was about 12…that’s where the idea for the island of Blamenholm came about: I wanted people to wonder whether it ever really existed or not. And if it did, to fear it.
It didn’t come out that way in the end. The Black Land is more like a story, but that happens in writing sometimes: you go in with one intention and end up somewhere left of centre. The thing is just to go with it.
How much research was actually involved?
I was on holiday in Northumberland with my wife who was pregnant. I was trying to write whilst she napped and I wasn’t really getting anywhere with my Amityville Horror, but a boat trip to the Farne islands was when the idea for The Black Land hit me.
The scene where Chad and Lauren take a tour of the Farnes was actually the first scene I wrote as soon as we returned to the holiday cottage; the sound of the kittiwakes and the crash of the North Sea just seemed to stir something in me that day. That’s when I realised all I needed was right in front of me, so the holiday became a bit of an inspirational tour of my own doorstep. We visited Chillingham Castle, one of the most haunted (and one of my most favourite) places on Earth as well as the island of Lindisfarne. There is so much history and folklore around this part of the world that it felt pointless not to use it.
I am a bit of a stickler for getting facts right so there was a few phonecalls to North Sunderland Tourist Information and lots of Google Earth when we got home to try and really capture the reality of the place I had set my story.
How did you find the process of writing your first novella? What did you find most fun/challenging?
The challenge was actually getting it finished. Originally The Black Land ended when **SPOILER ALERT ** Martin’s wife and children are taken. I quite liked the idea of leaving the reader hanging, of not knowing what took them and why. However, the few people I showed the manuscript to were not impressed with how short it was and felt the ending was a bit of a cop-out (which, in hindsight, it absolutely was!)
That was the hardest part as the story was finished in my head. To be honest I almost gave up with it as I just couldn’t work out an ending. However, I stopped trying to force ideas and just let the words come. It’s hard to explain, but I almost went into auto-pilot and the story almost ended itself…I was simply the vessel (I know, pretentious again.)
The most fun part was actually editing it…I took another holiday to Nortumberland; Wooler this time, on my own, to immerse myself in the atmosphere. Unfortunately after one day, I caught the flu, so spent my time in the attic of an old mill cottage with the heating turned up, sleeping and editing through my snot. Reading back through and actually being satisfied with the result was a very pleasing feeling as was pressing the ‘send’ button when sending it to my editor.
During that mucus-drenched holiday I also wrote the back-story to one of the characters, Matty Dunn, the boatman who takes Martin to Blamenholm which I really enjoyed doing, yet it never made the final cut. It reveals a bit more about the impact of Blamenholm on the people who lived nearby. Maybe I’ll let you have a read of it.
Oh wow, yes please. I would love to get a peek into world beyond the Walkers’ experience. I bet others would too.
Next question is biggy: Who would you say are your biggest influences, particularly where this book is concerned?
I already mentioned Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror earlier, but that along with Stephen King’s The Shining, Pet Semetary, Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist are the books that have kept me awake at night they were so frightening. I am far from their standard yet, but one day I hope to be able to scare readers as much as those authors scared me.
All these horror novels are in the forefront of my mind when I am writing but some of the specific influences on The Black Land were the ideas of Arthur Machen and HP Lovecraft. I love their concepts that there are unpredictable and powerful forces in this earth that have been here long before our puny race dared to disturb them.
You’re right, I think that was one of the factors that contributed to this narrative being so unsettling: the forces disturbed were beyond human control or understanding. A nightmare situation in every possible sense.
Now we’re all keen to know what you have planned next!
I’m currently about 2/3rds through the first draft of a full-length horror novel set in Siberian Taiga (The Boreal, inhospitable forest that stretches most of the way around the north of the world (but no holidays planned yet!) Like Northumberland, the place is teeming with myth and legend as well as its own share of paranormal events and theories. Once that’s done and edited, I’ll be searching for an agent.
I have shudders already! Fantastic, looking forward to when that comes together. Though I hope you won’t be offended if I read that one with the lights on and not directly before bed. I’ve learnt my lesson!
Last but no means least, what would you say is the most important thing for new writers to bear in mind when approaching their first draft of their first novel?
Discipline. Some days you don’t feel like you want to write. Tough. Get on with it. If you don’t write, those days will become every day and you’ll never get anything done.
Even if you sit and write 1000 words of rubbish, that’s better than nothing.
I probably could have done better with my writing when I was younger, yet I had no discipline or patience so never got anything finished.
Keep going. If you still have the need to write, listen to it.
Also, read your draft out loud. Preferably to someone else. It’s amazing what you can miss from simply reading through in your head. I’ve had to re-work whole chapters from realising what I thought sounded good, simply didn’t!
Lastly and most importantly, listen to the people you want feedback from…there’s nothing that hurts more when people criticize your draft, your baby, but babies always look beautiful to their parents, even if they have three eyes…and two heads…right?
No arguments here! I think there may be another novel in there somewhere, shall we race to who gets to write it first?
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, M. J. Wesolowski. Thank you for sharing your insights and some truly great advice and, most of all, thanks for sharing your novella with us.
Here’s to the next chilling installment in what promises to be a fearsome catalogue of work!