CHASING THE WULF
Interview by David Howe
I cited Steve Harris as ‘a name to watch for the ‘90s’ following the release of his debut novel, Adventureland, and he has consolidated that position with his second novel, Wulf, now available in paperback.
Steve hails from Basingstoke in the south of England, and I met up with him recently for lunch and a chat about his current and future plans. No sooner had we settled down with a large plate of sandwiches and a bottle of fizzy wine than Steve proclaimed: ‘I love interviews! I love the way you can find out stuff for books by going up to complete strangers and asking them the most absurd questions. When I was writing Wulf, I wanted to find out what would happen if you tried to kill someone with a combine harvester, so I wrote to a manufacturing company and asked if anyone there could tell me what would happen and in what sequence. I ended up talking to one of their sales directors and he was really helpful, told me what would happen and gave me lots of leaflets.
‘I also went to a police station and asked what would happen if someone sawed down a tree and blocked off a village, sat up on the tree with a high-powered deer rifle and took shots at people, maybe a village bobby was killed as well - with a chainsaw! They looked at me a bit suspiciously at first but eventually they told me all sorts of things; I thought they’d politely ask me to leave, but they explained that if someone did do what I had outlined, they’d probably send out an Instant Response Unit, which is a couple of guys in a car and in the boot they’ve got a locked safe containing a rifle, which they can use if they think the situation needs it. They even went and asked the Chief Constable what size bullets they used for these rifles, detail like that was really helpful.’
Steve had to pause to munch on his chicken, grape and lemon mayonnaise sandwich so I took the opportunity to ask if he had done much research for his next novel, The Hoodoo Man.
‘Not really. I did do quite a lot for Wulf, but I didn’t really do any for The Hoodoo Man as far as going and actually talking to people. I had read a lot previously about out of body experiences and so on and also some of those quasi-religious books which purport to explain life, the universe and everything else you can possibly think of. I liked the way that their explanations and advice all hang together: basic common sense really.
‘That’s part of the basis for The Hoodoo Man and another aspect is to do with changing the future, but not in a time-travel sense. If you can see into the future, and you’re seeing say one future out of three, then perhaps if you’re clever enough you can make one of the other two futures happen. You may be able to manipulate what happens in the future by something you do now, simply by having that knowledge. For example, if you look into the future and see that you’re going to fall under a bus the next day, then you obviously wouldn’t go anywhere near a bus and the future you saw would not happen. I wanted to look quite closely at how things like that might happen and what the consequences might be. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, nothing’s simple or easy.
‘There are situations in The Hoodoo Man that are not terribly pleasant for the main character. I won’t tell you too much about it, but he finds himself faced with an impossible dilemma at one point, by being able to see into the future, and what he has to do to deal with it.’
While Steve ploughed into the tuna mayonnaise sandwiches, I asked what made him start writing in the first place.
‘Basically I was after a free lunch! I’d only ever written a couple of very short, one page, silly pieces of fiction, rather influenced by Spike Milligan I suppose, that kind of daftness, which I admire. And I’d also been playing in a band from my late teens to mid-twenties and writing some of the songs, which is very very difficult to do. I wanted to do something creative, something that might end up in me not having to go to work. This was because when I left school I was on the dole for six months or so, because there weren’t any jobs, and I eventually started working in an ammunition depot taking apart shells and stuff. The week after I started the job, I decided that the sooner I could do something I liked doing and not have to go to work, the better. This was why I took up with the band as it looked like a way out of having to go to work but it was dreadful, it was worse than having two jobs!
‘Anyway, the band eventually fell apart and I decided to write a book as I thought it would probably be easier! So I sat down with a large exercise book and a biro and wrote my first novel. I didn’t write it seriously at first, I just wrote when I could and built it up gradually. Then I was off sick for nearly two months with glandular fever, and towards the end of that I started feeling a bit better so I got the book out again and finished the manuscript. It was a real hand-written manuscript, not a typescript, so I asked people how much they would charge to type it, and after I found out how much they wanted, I bought myself an electric typewriter and taught myself to type. This wasn’t Adventureland and I won’t embarrass myself by telling you the title of it. I thought it was a fairly good kind of horror thriller thing, and in fact I think I’ve read worse since, but nobody was the faintest bit interested. Headline didn’t exist then, nobody was doing horror, there was nothing about - this was around 1979. There was the odd Guy N Smith book, but nobody was interested in publishing any fresh horror at all. I even tried some American publishers and they weren’t interested either. So, unperturbed, I started on another book.
‘Three novels and a volume of short stories later, I wrote Adventureland. By this time I knew the names of some of the people who had thought favourably of my previous stuff, and I sent Adventureland to them. One of them was Richard Evans, who was then at Futura. What I didn’t know was that he had left, and that someone else was there. I eventually got a note from Richard who was now at Headline saying that they would buy the book. He invited me up to talk about it and when I arrived he said ‘I’ve got some news for you which you’re not going to like very much’, so I said ‘What’s that then?’ and he said ‘I’m leaving!’. Luckily he was able to get the book through before he left.
‘Adventureland seemed to be very well received, and by then I was well into the next one, Wulf. Wulf started when I was driving along one day and there was this thing about BSE - mad cow disease - on the radio. There was a woman who had worked with people who had died from a brain disease called kuru, prevalent in the natives of New Guinea who ate the brains of their dead. No-one knew what it was, how it got there, where it came from or how to get rid of it. They were saying that it was closely related to scrapies, which is a brain disease in sheep, and that cow feed is made from dead sheep, the cows contracted BSE and then the meat from them went into meat pies for human consumption. All the experts on the radio said that humans could not get it, except for this one woman who said they could, citing the New Guinea natives as an example.
‘So I thought it would be good fun to give a whole village BSE. One of the symptoms in cows is that they become terrified - not that it takes much to frighten a cow anyway - and I wondered what they were frightened of. If they were hallucinating, what were they seeing? I thought it might be some sort of race memory of wolves, so that’s where the wolf idea came in. I basically decided to do a werewolf novel that didn’t involve any werewolves and progressed from there. I think I must be lucky as the whole process of writing seems to come really easily to me, it’s hardly ever a chore.
‘The greatest love of my life is sleeping, sex is next and third is writing. Those are the only things that I’d rather be doing than writing - except talking to you of course!’
And with that, the remaining sandwiches were devoured, the wine quaffed and Steve and I made our respective ways home. It was back to work for me, but I suspect that Steve had some serious sleeping to catch up on.