New Tredegar-born C.M. Saunders began writing in 1997, his early fiction appearing in several small-press titles. Following the publication of his first book, Into the Dragon’s Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales (2003), he worked extensively in the freelance market, contributing to over 50 international publications including Fortean Times, Loaded, Record Collector, Forever Sports and Nuts. In addition, he has written several novellas and had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, ezines and anthologies. He taught English and creative writing in China for five years, before settling in London where he works as a writer and editor in the sport, fitness and men’s lifestyle sectors. His latest release is Sker House on DeadPixel Publications.
Author Interview with C.M. Saunders
S&S: So…why did you choose Sker House? Was it just a matter of it being a place you were familiar with because of it being in Wales too, or was there something in particular that attracted you to it?
CMS: It was a combination of all those things, really. When I was little we used to go on family holidays to a seaside town called Porthcawl, which is very close to Sker, and we often went on walks to Sker Beach. The house was in ruins then, and even as a child I could tell it was a very atmospheric, eerie place. There are lots of ghost stories and legends attached to the house, most famously that of Elizabeth, Maid of Sker. She was the daughter of the house’s owner, a very dubious character called Isaac Williams who was involved in all kinds of sketchiness. Elizabeth fell in love with a local harpist, but her father strictly forbade the prospective marriage and locked her in a room in the house until she agreed to marry someone of his choosing. She died at a tragically young age, some say of a broken heart, and ever since people have reported seeing her ghost looking out of the window of one of the upstairs rooms of Sker House.
S&S: For anyone who is interested, Sker House has it’s own Wikipedia page here.
S&S: Sker House has also featured in another novel, though from a much, much earlier time. The Maid of Sker was 3 volumes long, written by R.D. Blackmore, and published in 1872. Have you ever read that work yourself? I know you mention a “Maid of Sker” in your story, is it linked to this work by Blackmore? Or is it a separate legend?
CMS: RD Blackmore was a Welsh writer who was brought up in the area around Sker House, so he was aware of the house’s history and the legends surrounding it. I haven’t read it but I know the Maid of Sker in his book is a baby who is washed up on a beach in a tiny boat, and the rest of the story concerns the attempts of the man who finds her to solve the mystery of who she is. The title supposedly comes from a folk song written by the harpist the original Maid of Sker fell in love with after she married another man, which adds yet another twist to the tale. When I started researching Sker House and the surrounding area, I found that fact to be even stranger than the fiction. There are enough stories to write ten books. The challenge lay in including as many as possible, weaving them into some kind of cohesive narrative, and bringing the whole thing up to date.
S&S: You lived in China for six years, given your interest in writing horror/paranormal, one must assume you delved into that side of literature there. Was there any tale you heard that stayed with you? If so, mind giving us a short and sweet of it?
CMS: The Chinese don’t traditionally go for the paranormal much. They are much more pragmatic than the Japanese and Koreans. The government gave Steven Spielberg a role in organizing the 2008 Olympics, but he pulled out for political reasons. In retaliation they not only banned all his films, even things like ET, but they put a blanket ban on ‘horror.’ There are lots of urban legends, though, that you hear off the record so to speak. One I heard several times was the crying baby story. I spent a year working in rural hunan province. The school was in the middle of nowhere. The students would all talk about this crying baby. Supposedly, during the night you could hear a baby crying. You would head out into the countryside to look for it, get lost, and never find your way back again. After I heard that, sure enough, at night I would often hear a baby crying. It was probably just a normal baby. Probably. One thing was certain, though, I was never going to go out looking for it.
S&S: You’ve done a lot of interviews yourself, though it seems mostly of sports people. Have you ever struck up a friendship with any of the people you’ve interviewed? If not, is there someone after you interviewed them you walked away thinking they would be cool to be friends with?
CMS: I think ‘friendship’ would be the wrong word. Yes, I interview a lot of people in my day job as a magazine writer but when you meet and interview these people you both try to be professional, and develop a mutually beneficial relationship. You are not trying to make friends, it’s purely a work environment. Saying that, I regularly get awe struck! I am very lucky to do what I do. Sometimes you have to ask the questions perhaps other people wouldn’t ask, so things can get very real very quickly. There are some you meet on regular basis, so you build up a relationship. You might interview them several times, then go to an event and bump into them there. In that case, you exchange ‘hello’s’ or have a quick informal chat. There are some people you have an instant rapport with. A recent example would be the ex-boxer Joe Calzaghe, who I interviewed in London when his movie came out last year. I think it was mainly down to us both being from the same place. As soon as he heard my accent, my job was half done!
S&S: Good point, and something bloggers need to keep in mind, too, I think.
S&S: Alright, we’ve got to talk about scary movies for a minute. Name your favorite horror movie and tell us why you picked it, please.
CMS: I’d have to go for Lost Boys. Mainly because of the time it represented. The late 80’s were excruciating to live through but looking back, some of the films, books and music that came out in that era was iconic. Lost Boys had just the right mix of mystery, humor and horror, not to mention great stars and an awesome soundtrack, and it made the whole vampire genre cool again. Not only that, but it made you actually want to be a vampire. Or that might just have been me. A more recent film that went under the radar somewhat was Spring. If you have a chance, give it a go.
S&S: Do your nightmares ever make it into your stories?
CMS: Yes, quite often. A few years ago I wrote a novella called Apartment 14F: An Oriental ghost Story, which was about a teacher living in a haunted apartment in Beijing. That was pretty much just several extremely disturbing nightmares I had stitched together. A few of my short stories have also been inspired by dreams, and on rare occasions (a recent example being a story called Jessica, which will be featured in an up-coming issue of Liquid imagination) virtually the entire story plays out before my eyes. Beginning, middle and end. I must admit, it’s a bit deflating to know that your subconscious mind is more fertile than your waking one!
S&S: Is there any of yourself in Dale?
CMS: I didn’t realize when I was writing it, but when it came to the editing stages I was shocked by how much of me is reflected in the character of Dale. There are the obvious things like he was from a small valley town in Wales and went away to university to become a writer, eventually going to work for a magazine in London. But then Dale and I also share a lot of the same ideas and opinions, and a lot of the specifics that happened to Dale in the story happened to me. Not the supernatural stuff, but the more personal things. It wasn’t intentional, Sker House is in no way autobiographical, but with the story line being so ‘out there’ I wanted other parts of the book to be very gritty and grounded to make it as realistic and believable as possible. Injecting some personal experience in it allowed me to do that.
S&S: What was the hardest part of writing Sker House?
CMS: The research was very time consuming, but both necessary and enjoyable, and making your characters believable and relatable is a constant struggle. Other than that, it’s always finding the time. I think in the current climate, where there are so many people doing it and so many books to choose from, it’s easy to take them for granted. But even the worst book is a big part of the writer’s life. It can take anything up to a year to write a novel, often a lot longer. That is a big commitment and a huge undertaking. I wrote the first draft of Sker House when I was living in China in 2011/12. Then life got in the way and I didn’t dust off the manuscript again until late last year. By then, it was a different story. The story hadn’t changed, I had.
S&S: Do you believe in ghosts and/or things that go bump in the night, or is it just a literary interest?
CMS: I’m a skeptic, and I think there are perfectly natural and rational explanations for about 99% of the so-called paranormal events that take place. But then, of course, what about the remaining 1%? That alone proves the existence of the supernatural. A lot of strange things happen in this world that simply can’t be explained. As a race, people are not nearly as smart as we like to think we are. Sure, we can put men on the moon and make enough weapons to destroy all life on earth many times over, but we don’t even know what lives at the bottom in the ocean. Most mainstream scientists choose to ignore these ‘difficult’ aspects and just focus on what they CAN explain. This was the whole basis of Charles Fort’s writings, which led to the continued existence of Fortean Times magazine.
S&S: What’s the current story idea floating around in your head?
CMS: I’m not telling you in case someone steals it, haha! Something that is finished, though, is a horror novella set in World War I called No Man’s Land, which will be released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
S&S: Do you have an established routine for your writing since you do it for a living? If so, mind sharing?
CMS: A lot of people think professional writers are living the dream, and sure, it has some great points, but it’s also a hard life. I don’t really have a set routine. When I wake up, I do the important stuff like my accounts, administration, and checking email. Then most days I try to pitch a couple of feature ideas at various editors, most of whom don’t reply, then I kick on with any features I’m working on, break for food, and continue late into the night. Non-fiction always takes precedence because at this stage in my career, my fiction is more of a guilty pleasure. Saying that, if a story is going well I like to work on it intermittently whilst doing other stuff. Article writing is more of an exact science, there is a formula you adhere to, and you tailor your style to suit the readership. Fiction writing is much more organic, and my muse might not come out to play for days or weeks on end, so when she’s there I try to take advantage and get busy. That means pulling the occasional all-nighter. Of course, that messes up your body clock for the next day or so, but you have to get through it.
S&S: and to wrap it up … What is the one thing that sets Sker House apart from all the other books in the genre?
CMS: I think that would be the amount of historical fact it contains. Not just the story of the Maid of Sker, but over the years so many other weird things have happened there. The house is almost 1000 years old. At one time it was a hideaway for renegade monks during the Reformation, which was a very fraught and bloody time in British history. No end of tragedy has occurred there since. The section of sea it overlooks was the scene of one of the worst disasters in British maritime history. It’s almost as if the house is cursed, this is without all the reported poltergeist activity, shadow figures, and omens of death that plague the area.
Dale and Lucy are two students with a fascination in the supernatural. One weekend, they travel to Sker House, South Wales, a private residence with a macabre history which has recently been converted into a seaside inn. They plan to write an article for their university magazine about a supposed haunting, but when they arrive, they meet a landlord who seems to have a lot to hide. Soon, it becomes apparent that all is not well at Sker House. An air of oppression hangs over it, while misery, tragedy and ill-fortune are commonplace. Gradually, it becomes clear that the true depth of the mystery goes far beyond a mere historical haunting. This is a place where bad things happen, and evil lurks.
Little by little Dale and Lucy fall under Sker’s dark spell, and as they begin to unravel the mysteries of the past, they realize that nothing stays buried forever.
Welcome to Sker House, a place where past and present collide.
Sker House sound intriguing? You can support an indie author and buy it now on Amazon. We hope you enjoyed this author interview with C.M. Saunders