I liked Barry Hutchison’s The 13th Horseman a lot, so it was this book and the fact that I have found Barry hilariously funny at events, that made me want to interview him. And it turns out he doesn’t think he’s funny! Nor does he reckon he’s short. It’s only I who, mistakenly, do. Did.
We’ve had slight problems finding a time slot in which to meet during the Edinburgh International Book Festival, until we decide we are both willing to get up far too early and have a post-breakfast chat. Barry finds he’s not staying at the hotel he’d expected, but he adapts well to change, so comes over fresh from his previous night out on the town with the boys. ‘It was a late night for me. I don’t get to go out really. We went to see the Re-Animator movie, based on the 1980s horror film. So it was all right.’
The discussion moves on to old sitcoms, and from there to being famous and getting recognised.
‘I get it occasionally. There was a girl of about ten who came up to get a book signed, and I said “what’s your name?” and she looked at me and said “I was here last year…”’ We laugh.
Here I go slightly insane, implying that Barry looks short in photographs, but in reality he is very tall.
‘I come across as short??’
‘Yes. Something about you makes you seem short.’
‘Wow! Six foot four in real life,’ he laughs.
‘So, have you always been funny?’
‘Erm, I’ve never been funny, as far as I’m concerned. I find things that make me laugh. Like The 13th Horseman. I wrote it because it made me laugh.’
‘I’ve always written to amuse myself.’ He sounds embarrassed. ‘Not necessarily a good trait to have, laughing at your own jokes. So yeah, not something I’ve ever been conscious of.’
‘I’ve not read your other books. Are they funny, despite being horror books?’
‘Well, the first review I ever read for Mr Mumbles said it was the funniest horror story they’d ever read. I kind of wanted to do funny stuff before then, and I tried writing funny stuff years ago, and it came out just awful. Not funny at all.’
‘Trying too hard.’
‘It just didn’t work, so I thought I’ll try something else; I’ll do horror, and then that first review said it was the funniest horror book they’d ever read. And I thought I will try and write funny stuff again. I find it difficult to read anything that doesn’t have some vein of humour in it somewhere. I find books and television programmes and films that take themselves too seriously quite hard work.’
‘I think you can get humour in anything. It’s life, there is humour in almost any situation. I can try to reflect that in my books.’
‘Since I like your humour, would I like your horror books as well?’
‘You should do, yes. It’s very character based stuff.’
Our drinks arrive, and Barry says he’s ‘gone for the caffeine hit as well,’ drinking Coke to stay awake.
‘So it’s very character based, the humour stuff. It’s the interaction between the characters. They really came alive. It’s an old cliché, but I found them really coming to life to the point where I almost don’t feel I can take any credit for The 13th Horseman.’
I laugh. ‘Yes, I read the the little bonus story about the remote.’
‘Ah yes, the remote and the apocalypse.’
‘Did Famine eat the remote?’
‘No, it was folded up in one of his folds of flab.’
At this point the photographer, who hasn’t read either the book or the story, believes we’re out of our minds.
‘He didn’t actually eat it?’
‘It just kind of got stuck in there, I think. Don’t quote* me on that. I generally forget, which makes events like this quite difficult.’ I laugh. ‘People ask me stuff about the books and I have no idea. I wrote the first Invisible Fiends in 2007, so when they ask questions I have no clue whatsoever. I think it was trapped under a fold of flab, somewhere. Who’s your favourite Horseman?’
‘I think it has to be Pest.’
‘Yeah, most people say Pest.’
‘He’s a bit of a pest but he’s got a certain something. Although War is a very caring man.’
‘War is, yes. If you look at Pestilence’s diary, where they find out what War does in his spare time… That’s actually going to come up in a direct sequel, called Four More Horsemen. They all get sacked from the job for being absolutely hopeless, replaced by four new horsemen. So they have to go and get real jobs. Famine has an ice cream van and War goes and works in a home for old soldiers.’
‘Is that the one that’s coming next?’
‘No, coming next is The Book of Doom.’
‘Which won’t feature our four horsemen?’
‘They make a cameo appearance. I enjoyed writing them so much that I wanted to cram them into this too. It’s only a page. One of the main characters ends up left in limbo, and the horsemen are there playing rounders. Although they do use the shed for taking them somewhere. I want to explore their back story a bit.’
‘Yes, there is an awful lot of past.’
‘Exactly. Thousands of years they’ve known each other. I’d love to explore their first meeting. You know, job interview or something. I’d love to do a picture book based on the seventh Death, which was the goldfish, who was an admin error. He was only there for a few seconds.’
‘I was going to say we could be meeting quite a few Deaths that way.’
‘I think that would be nice, to go back and look at some of the stranger ones. The first Death, going mad.’
‘A lot of scope there. Have you any idea how many have read Pest’s diary online?’
‘Not a clue. I’ve never actually looked at the stats. I wrote it for my own amusement, to explore Pestilence’s head a bit more. If the internet wasn’t there, I probably would be writing it in a notebook, and keeping it for myself. If this wasn’t my job, I would be writing all these things anyway.’
‘What would pay the bills?’
‘I don’t know. I had a number of “real” jobs, before I became an author. I went through fourteen jobs in eight years, getting sacked because I have a very overactive imagination and a tendency to daydream.’
‘What did you get sacked from?’
‘From BT, working in the call centre. Then I got rehired as a manager in the call centre, whereupon I got sacked, some months after that.’ Barry laughs ruefully. ‘Sacked from Blockbuster Videos, when I was a student in Aberdeen. Jobs in pubs and shops, and I ran a company making wedding videos. I just couldn’t face another wedding video, so I jacked that in. But I’ve always wanted to be a writer in some way.
I sold my first written work when I was 17, a screenplay, to an American film company. It was called Curse of the Bogwomen, a comedy, horror b-movie sort of thing, set in the Highlands. It never got into production unfortunately. And I sold another screenplay and got a bit fed up of the whole film scene, because there are so many scripts and so many projects starting and then never happens. So that’s where I started.’
‘So this pays the bills does it?’
Here my second bout of insanity hits me, and I ask ‘how old are you now?’ I am sure I just want to know how many years have passed since that first screenplay.
‘Aahhh,’ he has to think, ’34.’
‘Are you?’ Somehow I hadn’t expected him to be quite so young.
‘I don’t know, 34. 1978,’ he counts, ‘yes. I can never remember, so I have to calculate it from my date of birth.’
‘OK, so 17 years of writing.’
‘Yeah! Pretty much half my life. I was nine when I knew I wanted to be an author, in primary school. And I’ve written stories for my own amusement as long as I can remember. I wish I could find some of them, but I destroyed them because they were so…’
‘Usually mothers hang on to them.’
‘She probably has. I’m going to look in the attic. I’m hoping my Star Wars figures are there, as well, but I’ve got a horrible feeling she gave them all away.’
‘Yes, that sounds fairly mother-like. Are you really scared of squirrels? Or is it something you say for effect?’
‘Uhm, I’m not as scared as I make out. I used to be terrified of them. I’m still quite weary. I wouldn’t go up and shake a squirrel’s hand. But I’m not living in a constant state of terror. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m particularly comfortable with them. When I was younger I was just living in a state of fear.’
‘There’s a picture on my website. I came out of my house one day, and at the corner of my eye I saw something moving and I looked and there was a squirrel climbing the wall of my house, like Spiderman. It was a white squirrel, with red eyes. I reckon there are about 25 of them in the entire country, at any one time, so how one found its way to my house seems like more than a coincidence. I had to snatch a photograph before I ran for cover.’
‘Are you going to go back to writing horror, or will you stick with humour?’
‘I don’t know. I’m really glad I’ve been able to move from horror to comedy. My concern at the start was that people were saying “oh look, he’s the new Darren Shan.” And I never ever wanted that. I was never a huge horror fan. I quite enjoy it, and I enjoy writing it, but I didn’t want to be stuck doing that. At the minute I am loving doing the Afterworlds, but I also don’t want to be stuck doing that.’
‘I’d love to be able to do a Neil Gaiman thing and write whatever I wanted. That would be my ideal. I would hate to be stuck in one genre, so I think after a few Afterworlds I’ll be looking to do something different.’
‘It’s an idea,’ he says uncertainly… ‘yeah…’
‘You skirt on the borderlines of romance in the Horsemen.’
‘A bit, yeah, and in Invisible Fiends sometimes even more so.’
‘There’s the main character who’s a boy, and there’s a girl he meets, and there’s always an undercurrent of… I would never rule it out, you know. Not necessarily a straight romance, probably wouldn’t be my cup of tea.’ We laugh. ‘But in a game like humour it’s everywhere.’
‘Who reads your books? I would have expected it to be nearly only boys.’
‘Actually, I get a load of feedback from girls. I was surprised about the Invisible Fiends. I thought Invisible Fiends was a boys’ series.’
‘But I’ve had easily as many emails and letters from girls, possibly even more so. And again I’m quite drawn, because the girl in Invisible Fiends is almost a stronger character. Certainly to begin with. She’s very much your kind of kick-ass action character. I think that appeals to a lot of girls as well. I would say it’s pretty much fifty-fifty, possibly even slightly more on the girl side. It could be because more girls are reading anyway, and girls will read boys’ books.’
‘And maybe they will also write to authors.’
‘Yes, they’ll be the ones who get in touch, but I’ve had a surprising number of adults who read Invisible Fiends and Horseman. In fact, I would say of Horseman most of my feedback have been from adults.’
‘I’m not surprised. It feels like an adult book, masquerading as a children’s.’
‘Again, it was the story I wanted to write and I never thought “I’m writing this for 12-year-olds, or I’m writing this for adults.” The potential third book in the series doesn’t have any children in it at all, but it’s still for the same age group. The three other horsemen are equally the main characters. Drake is the protagonist, but the other horsemen are equally as important, if not more so. Which is quite rare in kids’ books.’
‘Yes, you’ve got a young person hanging out with old men. Very old men, and that’s really not advisable at all.’
‘No,’ he laughs, ‘definitely not. Especially not those three. Very strange men living in a shed…’
‘I think on Facebook, you have mentioned your Author Directory?’
‘Well, we started this literary magazine – Start the Story – for schools, myself and Tommy Donbavand. We do a lot of events at schools, a lot of workshops. We have an hour, so can’t do anything too in-depth, because you have to introduce yourself and have time to do questions and answers at the end. So you probably have half an hour. Afterwards we were both amazed by the number of the teachers who would come up and say “can we steal that, can we use that in our lessons?” I’m surprised they weren’t already doing things like that.
So we spoke about it and thought maybe we can do this like some kind of email to send back to schools saying here are some ideas for your writing lessons. Start the Story just grew from there. It’s a bi-monthly digital magazine, and schools can subscribe to it and they get writing advice for reviews and stuff.
We’re having a big push trying to get more authors into schools, so as an extension of that we put together this directory of authors that schools can turn to. We’ve got authors and illustrators and comic book artists and tv screenwriters on there. We’re going to try and make it a really useful resource.’
‘So you are just starting?’
‘Very much so. The directory has only been going for ten days (as we speak), the magazine issue two comes out on the 15th August.’
‘Is it only you and Tommy writing this?’
‘Currently, yeah. Quite a lot of work, so we’re going to try and get more articles coming in from other writers. Because we’re not making any money from it.’
‘Is there no fee for subscribing?’
‘There is a fee for subscribing; you get all six issues and access to the members’ area for 36 quid. The whole school can use it and print out worksheets and stuff. The idea is to keep it as affordable as possible. I’ve put hours into the last one; time when we could be writing books, so we need to make it pay for itself. The cost of web hosting and all that stuff. The first issue is completely free, and is always free.’
‘I hope it’s successful. You seem to mostly do events in Scotland?’
‘I do. Travelling from way up in the Highlands, to get here yesterday took over five hours. I’m doing more in England. I did a tour of London earlier this year, and I’m doing a tour of Manchester and Liverpool in October. But I do a lot more book festivals in Scotland. The cost of getting me down from the Highlands is quite high, and the time it takes. For a festival in the south of England it’s at least two nights accommodation and about 15 hours of travelling there and back.’
‘That takes a lot of your writing time as well. Where’s your nearest airport?’
‘Inverness, which is a couple of hours.’
‘Still a long way.’
The photographer suggests the sleeper train.
‘Oh, I don’t do that! I took the sleeper going to London and I don’t have the right proportions for sleeper trains. I literally didn’t sleep until about 15 minutes before the train was due to stop. I vowed never again. I would prefer to travel by train always if I could, but from Fort William it’s just not possible. To get to Glasgow is four hours by train and two hours by car. Living down here [Edinburgh] you can be in London in four hours.’
‘What took you to live in Dunbar a couple of years ago? You seem to have left again very quickly.’
‘Our plan was that we’d need to be more central, for events. Down here I could travel. Then my mum took really ill and I was driving back there all the time.’
‘I know. It was a nightmare. We’d just rented somewhere and coming to the end of our six months, we thought, right, we’re just going to go back up. But she’s doing grand now.’
‘That’s good to hear. Do you have a favourite author, other than Neil Gaiman?’
‘Other than Neil Gaiman? Well, I grew up reading Pratchett. I was a big, big Pratchett fan. I was Carrot in a stage adaptation; I had my hair bleached blond, and then dyed an incredible shade of orange. So I was Carrot in Guards! Guards! and Men At Arms. And I think I would be a very different writer today if I hadn’t been a Pratchett fan.’
‘I read a lot. Not as much these days as I used to. I rarely get time to read the books I’d choose to, as I’m reading stuff I’ve been sent instead. For the magazine we’re being sent dozens of books to review, so as you know yourself, you feel obliged to read. I find it difficult to find time to discover new things. But I think children’s literature at the moment has got to a real golden period. There’s everything out there under the sun. Any subject you can think of, there is a children’s book about it. And the number of adults saying they are preferring children’s literature to adult literature is staggering. It’s a sign of the quality out there.’
‘So yeah… But as for a favourite author, it has to be Neil Gaiman, definitely. Still sitting in number one.’
‘I feel you’re behaving in a rather star struck way with Neil.’
‘Fan boy. Neil Gaiman fan boy!’
‘Why? I feel that you are not in any way a lesser writer. You’re probably not selling quite as many copies as Neil is, but…’
‘Thanks very much. I think because I grew up reading Neil Gaiman and I read comic books, I would love to be able to do that as well. He’s almost got the blueprint of the career I would love to have; to be able to write Batman, and then Doctor Who.’ We laugh. ‘That’s just a dream, you know. Going through my teenage years and now moving in some of the same circles, is quite exciting.’ Barry sounds understandably pleased.
‘So many writers admire someone whose work is totally different from their own, so it’s great that you are writing in a similar vein to your heroes.’
‘That’s what I always say when I do school events; just write the things that you enjoy. I’m not trying to emulate anyone. This is the style that amuses me.’
‘If not, then it becomes just another job. I do it first and foremost for me and my own amusement. The fact that people buy it and want to read it is quite mind-blowing. A lovely bonus.’
‘It was great to find I liked what you’d written. Because I didn’t know anything about you before.’
‘I was nervous when you said you were reading. When my final Invisible Fiends came out I was terrified. I’d been living in this state of panic thinking because it doesn’t tie everything up – it ties most things up, but I like some things being left for people to decide themselves – there’s a chance people are going to be disappointed if it goes against what they’ve been expecting. I thought I’m going to blow it at the final hurdle, but the reviews so far are really good and the feedback from kids seems good too. I can sleep easy at last.’
‘I must read some of them. Time ran out, and when Horseman turned up that looked more manageable.’
‘Most of the Fiends apart from the last two, can be read as standalone books. You don’t have to read the whole series. The last two are almost like a two-parter. I left five with a real cliffhanger, but books one to four you can just read as standalone.’
‘I shall have to. I do like my humour. Some books are just too earnest.’
‘There’s also the other extreme. There are some authors who force the humour, and are almost saying “look how funny this is.” That’s equally hard work. I like the humour to come naturally from the characters. That’s why I don’t ever feel I’m writing funny stuff as such. It’s just that these characters are saying funny things. I really want to do more horsemen. I love them, and their relationships. Death I want to explore at different stages.’
‘I’m looking forward to that,’ I say, knowing that before all Barry’s Deaths have been put into novels, there are the Fiends to enjoy.
We have things to do and places to be, and now that we have woken up and are almost alert, the photographer and I scarper, leaving Barry to pay for our early morning Cokes. He’s a gentleman. And he’s funny. (OK, and tall.)
*Obviously I am quoting him on that.
(Photos by Helen Giles)