In 1991 a paperback called Dreamside was published by Pan Books. It received plaudits from all who read it, and the author, Graham Joyce, has cemented that success with two further novels.
Graham's fiction is real-life, dealing with believable characters in everyday situations and it is his skill at handling the interplay, as well as the underlying themes, that make the books so enjoyable.
Before writing Dreamside, Graham worked as a trainer of youth workers for a national youth organisation. "I'd been doing that for about eight years and I started to hear myself running on autopilot," he explained. "I'd been writing semi-seriously since I was about eighteen. Whichever job I was in at the time determined whether I had the stamina to write anything in the evenings. If you have a creative and demanding job it's difficult to do the things you enjoy in your free time. Part of the problem was that it was a damn good job and I enjoyed it so it was taking all of my energy.
"So, having realised I was going nowhere, I suddenly asked my wife, Sue, if she fancied going to Greece for a year. She agreed and we planned to go in to work the next day, pick arguments with our bosses and hand our notices in. It was like when you agree with someone to jump in a swimming pool together and you're worried that the other person's not going to jump when you do. As it happened we both jumped. It was drastic, but it was a drastic time for us.
"So off we went. We rented out our house in England and ended up on the Greek island of Lesbos where we had a wonderful year. We found a very cheap place to rent on the beach. It had no electricity and no running water, we had to get the water from a pump."
Anyone who has read Joyce's most recent novel, The House of Lost Dreams will instantly recognise this location from the book. I wondered how much of the book was real.
"The setting is real; that house, everything around that place and the geography of that island is real, it's only the events that are fictional. Lesbos is a strange, volcanic island and we did have certain peculiar feelings around the house we were living in and we actually experienced this business of saying something and it coming true, it happened too often to be able to discard it with the word coincidence. I tend to be a sceptic but how many times can you use the word coincidence in one day before you start to realise that the word is inadequate to describe the kind of experience you're having?
"For example, the passage in the book about finding scorpions on the wall actually happened. Sue and I hadn't even discussed scorpions but I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and by doing that I woke Sue up. She asked me what was wrong and I said 'There are scorpions in the room'. She said, 'That's funny, I've just been dreaming about scorpions'. So I said 'Okay, I'm going to have a look'. I didn't like the idea of them getting into bed with us, you see. So I lit an oil lamp and went around the room. Sure enough, right above the bedstead were these three very large scorpions on the wall. I don't know what it was, but there must have been something, maybe it's a sense of smell or danger, some sense of alarm, that woke me up and made Sue dream. As it happened - I'm ashamed to say - as in the book, I had to kill the bloody things with the back of a frying pan. It was a very odd experience.
"We were out on Lesbos for a year; the best year of my life, without doubt. We drove there, lived there, learnt the language, it was terrific. And I also wrote Dreamside there.
"I'd gone there intending to write and I'd had this idea banging around in my mind for ages. I'd drafted a synopsis before we left and sent it to an agent. So when we arrived I got my head down and did the work. We supplemented our savings by picking oranges and olives and that sort of stuff, and by the time the year was up we were pretty much skint.
"It was about then that I got the phone call. There was only one phone in the nearby village, and that was in the Kafenion where the shepherds and locals drink, a little spidery coffee bar. A shepherd came running up the pathway, and to see a Greek running anywhere is always impressive, so we knew something was up, and he was shouting: 'Elate kai na pame sto Kafenion' that's 'Come, we must go to the Kafenion'. 'There's a madman on the phone' he says. When I got there, there were all these Greek shepherds clustered round the phone and they were taking turns to grab the handset and go 'Eh?' into the mouthpiece before passing it on for someone else to have a go. So I grabbed the phone off them and said 'Hello, can I help you?' And this voice said, 'I'm trying to get through to Graham Joyce but it's been a nightmare'. 'It's just the guys from the Kafenion,' I explained, and he asked, 'What sort of people are they?' 'Well they're Greeks,' I said, and he goes, 'Oh dear!' It turned out that they'd been shouting at him for about two days while he'd been trying to get through to me, this was my agent, and he had sold Dreamside to Kathy Gale at Pan books.
"It was a fairy tale ending; if it hadn't have happened, we would have had a great year. But this news really made it all worthwhile. It's how it happens in the movies, you give up your job, go down to Greece, write a book, get it published. Of course, it doesn't normally happen like that.
"Then two years went by before Dreamside was actually published. I thought I'd be able to buy Christmas presents for everyone that year. Wrong. I had to wait two years. Then my editor at Pan left the company and everything was up in the air. Nobody seemed to know who I was at Pan and there was this vagueness about the next book and so my agent started to look for another publisher. I had my next novel, Dark Sister, ready and so I ended up at Headline."
Dreamside concerns lucid dreaming and the experiments of a group of college students in that area. Where did the idea for this novel come from?
"Lucid dreaming was a subject that I discovered because there was some genuine research into the subject at Hull University in the seventies. There was money available for that kind of research and people would be paid for lying on their backs in darkened tanks of water! So I read up on that and I also remembered a TV programme in which a woman described some side effects that she had experienced as a lucid dreamer. One was that she would wake up and go about her daily business, then she would wake up again, then she would go about her daily business, then she would wake up again! Each time she was breaking out of a shell only to find that she was still dreaming. I thought that this was terrifying, a real nightmare, not knowing if you were dreaming or not. As well as the multiple layers, the other thing about lucid dreams was that they are so banal, totally unlike the weirdness of normal dreams, there was nothing in the dream to signal that it was a dream. An image came to me of this man lying in bed on his own and waking up repeatedly. Then the phone rings and somebody else tells him that they've had the same experience and he still doesn't know if he is dreaming or not. The book came from that idea.
"Dreamside seemed to arouse a lot of interest because it certainly wasn't mainstream science fiction, it wasn't mainstream fantasy, it wasn't exactly a horror novel and I think that's probably why people were interested in it. If you're on the edge people are often more interested than if you're writing straight down the track. As has happened, the two books that have followed are not straight down the track of fantasy and horror, they use clear genre devices but they are floating around the genre areas. That doesn't bother me but I think it bothers the publishers. One consequence appears to be that Dark Sister was put with the horror titles while Dreamside was with the fantasy in the bookshops.
"Dark Sister is about herbalism, New Age concepts, finding yourself and witchcraft. I'm interested in anything about latent powers. In Dreamside the latent powers concerned lucid dreaming, in Dark Sister I looked at feminine powers that past generations associated with witchcraft. House of Lost Dreams was about people projecting forms of fantastic reality onto the landscape. If there's a pattern to my work, it's people finding what's inside themselves, lifting the lid, finding out what's bubbling away beneath."
Another recurring theme is the break-up of couples through a reluctance to communicate with each other.
"That's true, I hadn't thought of that. That's interesting, but I've been with my wife for about fourteen years. That's odd, isn't it?
"I think a lot of fantasy and science fiction fails to concentrate on character and the relationships between people. I focus as much on what is happening to the people as on what is happening around them. If I were to write a ghost story then I would look as much at the people who are seeing the ghost as at the ghost itself."
Graham is currently at work on his fourth novel, about which he will say nothing other than it seems to be as different from his previous work as each of those has been different from the others. It takes him about a year to complete each book. "That's not first draft, but it'll take about a year to get a book ready for publication. That seems to be the natural pace for me."