Short, Sharp Interview: Anne Billson

ALOUETTE BY ANNE BILLSONAnne Billson is a John Carpenter and Charles Willeford fan, which can’t be bad. She was born in Southport, lived briefly in Japan and now lives in Paris.  She has worked as a secretary, cinema cashier and photographer. She writes on film for the Guardian and the Telegraph  and is the author of three crackingly wry British horror novels– SUCKERS, STIFF LIPS  and THE EX SPOILERS is her essential collection of films reviews.

What was the first piece of writing that you had published?

I wasn’t a professional writer at the time; I was a photographer, struggling to earn a living wage (plus ça change) and filling in for a holidaying friend in the listings section of the short-lived London magazine Event (started by Richard Branson as a rival to Time Out) which must have been around 1980/81. Jonathan Meades was editor at the time, and in retrospect I doubt anyone else would have even dreamt of publishing my very first article, which was a piece about inflatable rubber sex-dolls. In fact, I used to have a blow-up doll; when I went to live in Japan for a year I lent it to a couple of gay friends, and when I came back the only thing left was her head, like Albert after he’d been eaten by the lion.

God knows what they’d been doing to her. Poor dolly.

Was Salman Rushdie’s praise of Suckers a blessing or a curse?

Both a blessing and a curse, really. I guess it led to a lot of people reading it who might not otherwise have done so, and since one always likes to be read, that can’t be a bad thing.

But I suspect it also put the idea into people’s heads that I might have had literary aspirations, which wasn’t true. I’m not interested in either reading or writing so-called literary fiction, which with very few exceptions has always struck me as a complete waste of time; with Suckers I set out to write the sort of book I’d always wanted to read – a fast-paced potboiler, with vampires.Rushdie describing my novel as a “satire of the 1980s” became an easy crutch for lazy literary commentators who wouldn’t normally have touched a vampire novel with a barge-pole. And after Rushdie’s remark, hardly anyone looked on Suckers as anything OTHER than a satire on the 1980s. Suckers WAS about the 1980s – but only because I’d started writing it then, and to a certain extent I was describing what I was seeing around me at the time (minus the fangs, of course).

But I’m a slow writer and didn’t finish it until the 1990s, by which time it had turned into a period piece.

You’re novels have a trace of the Ealing Comedy about them. Stiff Lips  especially. An influence?

Ealing, eh? Maybe. If so, I would think more Dead of Night than Passport to Pimlico. I do think my novels are very English; I was a little surprised when Suckers was bought for publication in the United States because I used terms like “gazump”, which still baffles non-Brits. There are a couple of British films I think must be influences, since I’ve watched them so often. There’s The Rebel, in which Tony Hancock quits his 9-5 job in the City and goes off to Paris, where he founds the Infantile School of painting. Best film ever made about modern art. There’s also A Matter of Life and Death, which I could probably quote by heart now.And there’s also Launder & Gilliat’s wonderful comedy-thriller Green for Danger, which I quoted on the title page of my third (self-published) novel, a ghost story called The Ex. In the film, Alastair Sim plays a Scotland Yard detective investigating a murder in a rural hospital during WW2, and says in a voice-over: “When I took my departure that evening, it was not with the feeling that this had been one of my more successful investigations”.

I loved the idea of this smug detective thinking he’s so clever, but actually doing everything wrong, so it’s his own actions which bring about the very disaster he’s trying to avert. I tried to carry that through into the novel, which had a psychic investigator as narrator, though not as smug as Sim’s character. He thinks he knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t. Not at all. My first male narrator, incidentally.

 

How’s the campaign for you to be the new Jonathon Ross going?

We’ve got around 200 “fans” on the “Anne Billson Should Host Film 2010” Facebook page (which I didn’t set up myself, honest) which is pretty amazing considering none of them are my relatives. I don’t for one second think the BBC would offer me the job – my case is somewhat weakened by the fact that no-one, including the BBC, has ever heard of me – but I definitely think there should be more fiftysomething female presenters to break up the boys’ club and airheaded dollybird thing. They don’t necessarily have to be me.In any case, there should be more programmes about cinema on TV. More arts programmes in general, in fact, but I suspect it’s all wall-to-wall reality shows nowadays. Last time I turned on the TV in a London hotel it was showing a programme about penises.

What made you move to Paris? Was it the famous warmth, hospitality and sense of humour of its citizens?

I wanted to go to Paris and write novels. It was kind of an absurd adolescent dream, except that I was 47 at the time. I went to Paris, I wrote the novels, but what I didn’t foresee was that no-one would publish them, partly because Stiff Lips didn’t do too well – possibly something to do with no-one knowing it existed. I stil get people saying to me, “I loved Suckers. When are you going to write another novel?” I always thought it would be difficult getting one’s first novel published; it never occurred to me I’d have problems with the third.I detect a note of irony in your question, by the way. Parisians get a really bad rap; they’ve always been good to me. The helpfulness and patience shown to me while I was still struggling with the language was astonishing.

But what British visitors to Paris often fail to note is that the French are INCREDIBLY polite (strange but true) and so you MUST preface every interaction and transaction with a “bonjour” (or “bonsoir” if it’s the evening). You say bonjour to the waiter or barman as you go into a bar, before you give your order. You say bonjour to shop assistants before you ask them for something, you say it in banks and post offices, and you say bonjour to people in the street when you stop them to ask for directions. Thing is, if you DON’T say bonjour, and launch straight into your demands without preamble, you come across as rude and boorish, and the French will then treat you as such. It sounds rude and boorish even to me now. So remember – bonjour! I swear it’s like the Open Sesame to life in France.

You’ve been called the best film critic since Pauline Kael. Was she an influence on you?

I have? Who said that? I guess I should be flattered except that – in answer to your question – she hasn’t been an influence at all. Started reading a collection of her writing in the 1970s – I think it was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and quickly lost interest. Found it unfunny and not very perceptive, and I didn’t like the style. Perhaps I’d think differently if I read it again today, but I’ve avoided her ever since, and suspect it would be counter-productive to start reading her again now.Would say I’ve been more influenced by David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (the early edition; he goes a bit doolally in the updated one) though I don’t agree with all his opinions. Also – Joe Bob Briggs and my friend Kim Newman have both been influential.

I don’t read many film critics nowadays; I try to avoid reading too much about a film before seeing it. I don’t like film blogs, on the whole, because the writers go on and on, and life’s too short. In retrospect, it was useful having to write 200-word reviews for Time Out in the 1980s. Today’s bloggers have no concept of being edited for space, and consequently they don’t edit themselves.

If your novels were to be made into films who would direct them?

On the strength of Let the Right One In I would plump for Tomas Alfredson, since that’s pretty much a perfect book-into-film adaptation. Plus it was set in the 1980s, like Suckers. Though you’d probably have to get John Ajvide Lindqvist (who adapted his own novel) to do the screenplay. Not sure how they’d get on with the London settings; maybe they could transpose the story to Stockholm.Otherwise, I would go for Edgar Wright, who showed with Shaun of the Dead that he knows how to balance comedy with horror. Before Doomsday I might have considered Neil Marshall as too, but Doomsday was such a huge disappointment after Dog Soldiers and The Descent.

Christopher Smith’s another possibility – he seems to be getting better with each film; wasn’t keen on Creep (though since it pays homage to Death Line, at least it proves he’s aware of his heritage), but I really liked his last one, Triangle. Also, I’m keeping an eye on Steve Bendelack; I liked The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse a lot more than most, and was impressed by Mr Bean’s Holiday – and I HATE Mr Bean.

suckers

What’s on the cards for you in 2010?

Blood, sweat and tears. It’s not a terrific time to be a journalist or writer. I’m still getting freelance work, thank God, but my income has effectively been slashed in half and I’m struggling to pay the bills, which doesn’t leave much time for personal projects.In a perfect world, I would like to finish at least two of the three novels I’m working on, even if there’s not much prospect of getting them published by traditional means: a sequel to Suckers- Vampire Island, a teenage vampire saga which I started writing as a riposte to Twilight, and a devil-baby novel called The Coming Thing, which I finished years ago, but which needs rewriting. I have a great idea for a short film I’d like to develop. I recently started my own blog, and I’d like to try and make some even shorter films to post on that, perhaps finding a way of combining writing, film and photography to tell a story. Preferably a ghost story, or one about vampires. But I haven’t had a holiday since 2006. I’d like to take one of those in 2010.

You can read the first two chapters of Vampire Island at Anne Billson’s blog MULTIGLOM is here and: http://multiglom.blogspot.com/

MINICRIX is her film review database here: http://minicrix.blogspot.com/2010/01/sa-sy.html

You can buy her books here: http://stores.lulu.com/billson

And here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/search-handle-url?_encoding=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books-uk&field-author=Anne%20Billson

(This interview was previously at PULP METAL MAGAZINE )