To celebrate the release of Dan Soule’s new book tomorrow, I summoned him to the blog to ask him some questions about The Jam.
Iseult: Traffic jams are pretty hellish, so they are fertile ground for a horror writer. Did any real life traffic incident inspire this novella?
Dan: We’ve all been stuck there with nowhere to go, but there wasn’t one specific incident. I think the idea came from two different places.
When travelling for work or taking the family on a road trip, I’d think how motorways are pretty isolated places, despite the fact you seem to be heading somewhere. It’s the benefit of boredom, your mind wondering as you stare out the window. I’d see the expanse of countryside, the sense that if you stepped off the road where would you be?
Then there is that notion that most of us rely on sat navs now. I’m old enough to remember navigating by maps – I still keep a couple in the boot of my car just in case (you know, solar flare, end of the world, Chinese-Russian cyber attack…). We’d literally be lost without a little bit of technology.
Motorways are also strange places, nowhere places, just conduits between here and there. I remember thinking, how odd it would be to be outside of your car on a motorway, how even when the traffic is at a standstill people don’t get out. We are trapped in our cars; we are trapped by the rules we obey; and we are trapped in our myopia.
The second place the story came from was simple phrases like ‘the traffic was hell,’ or ‘the traffic was a real nightmare.’ Okay then, what if it was a literal nightmare? Smash these two ideas together – the odd place and a nightmarish situation, et voila, you’ve a spark for a horror story.
There was a lot more to sort out to make it a story, like why they are trapped in a jam? What’s happening to them? And all that stuff is really just setting. The story only comes alive when you have people who’ve different motivations battling with what’s going on, but the spark was enough of a hook for me to drive – pardon the pun – the story on. And I hope it’s a good hook for readers as well. Horror works well in everyday settings, and what could be more everyday than a traffic jam?
Iseult: I love how you write such flawed characters that are so compelling. Do you have a process for creating such complex characters?
Dan: Well, thanks for saying that.
Yes, I do have a process of sorts. I’ll throw a bunch of ideas for characters down. Initially in The Jam it was even more of an ensemble piece. There was going to be a school bus where most or the action took place, but in the end I cut that down to being just a setting a couple of the characters visit after something terrible has happened and no one is left.
I try to think about characters in broad strokes at the start – a basic composite, a teenage boy with an oppressive father, a footballer with everything but something isn’t quite right. I think we want characters that have some grey, even the bad guys (maybe especially the bad guys). Then I started to explore what their back stories would be. What motivates them. What led them to this point? Where do they want to go and why?
For the main characters, I try to think about the difference between what they think they want and what they actually need, and how would events move from one to the other. I’ve had teenagers in a number of my novels, which I like because they often don’t know what they want (or at least that was my experience as a teenager). Adults think they have a greater scene of themselves, which is great in fiction because that is so often not the case.
Finally, I try to marry the story arc and the characters together, which always means things move about as they interact. So in The Jam, Max and Natalie the main protagonists, kind of just emerged as the main characters as I started writing. They, I suppose, had the strongest back story and the most compelling arc. It really was their story.
Iseult: I love that your books champion the setting – such as Glasgow in Neolithica and London in Savage. Will we see a town in Northern Ireland appear in a future Soule novel? (Hopeful grin)
Dan: It’s funny you ask. I was recently chatting online with Neil McRobert of The Talking Scared Podcast about how Northern Ireland would be an obvious place for a gothic or horror novel given all the trauma. However, you really don’t see many that I can think of. I also live in a place called Islandmagee which was the place of the last witch trial in the UK and Ireland. The journalist Martina Devlin wrote a historical novel about it called The House Where It Happened, but it is not a horror. Perhaps, the trauma is too recent and ongoing. Or maybe the terror was all too real. A punishment beating is literal splatter punk violence but without the pornographic gaze. Mammies driving their sons to be shot in the back of their kneecaps rather than having them killed is a heart wrenching horror that is just too on the nose. No ‘metaphorical’ monster is going to come near the real monstrousness of the Troubles.
That said I do have an idea in a notebook, at least for some characters and a premise. However, as yet I can’t see how to make it work. Also, don’t get me wrong, Northern Ireland is the friendliest place, with tight knit communities and large extended family networks. People will go out of their way to help a visitor to our six little counties. The truth is, I grew up in the Midlands of England and much of my imaginative landscape was nurtured there. My home town, and the experiences I had there, is a mind palace for my memories and creativity. Two of my novels are set there and all of my books have a reference to that place too. So, in answer to your question, I’ve no plans just yet but there is certainly a possibility for it.
Iseult: You have a talent for creating an atmosphere of foreboding and terror in seemingly ordinary situations. What terrifies you in real life?
Dan: Gosh! That’s a hard question. Honestly, I’d say the idea of anything happening to my children is at the top of the list, but that’s what all parents say. Instead, let me take a different approach.
Existentially, I think social media and increasing online life is a creepy thing. The way we share our data without thinking. The way the internet never forgets. The way algorithms are set up to optimise for attention is utterly terrifying. Here just look at this, look at it longer. The way those algorithms play to the worst in our nature and then foreign governments can and are using those social media apps to stoke division. The way we don’t really know the effects of online life. The effects we can see seem awful and yet as a society we seem happy to let our children’s developing brains be wired into these things. And fundamentally, online life is proving to be anti-rational and destabilising, and we are so pampered as a culture that people are making up dragons to fight. Max Brooke’s last novel Devolution satired our current state so perfectly.
On a more visceral level, my wife and I recently watched a brilliant BBC drama called Time, about a teacher who goes to prison for killing someone while driving drunk. The brutality of a life inside was chilling. After it, we both agreed that the idea of going to prison terrified us. I have a recurring dream that I’ve killed someone and hidden the body and for some reason I think I’m about to be found out and I have to move the body. I usually get it when writing a novel and nearly every time I have it, it is so vivid that when I wake up I question the truth of my reality against the story in the dream. The first time it happened my heart was pounding so hard and I was panicked I had actually killed someone, it took me ten minutes to reason my way back to sanity. But then it begs the question, how do you know what is real? Of course, I immediately wrote the idea down in my notebook as a premise for a story. And honestly, I haven’t killed anyone and covered it up… that I know of.
Lastly, house fires. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, alarm blaring. Smoke and fire masking the most familiar place and in the background your loved ones are crying for you but flames are in the way. That is utterly terrifying.
Iseult: I love that so many of your novels feature dogs. Why did you decide not to have a dog in The Jam?
Dan: Ha, ha, you know I love a pooch side kick. Well, in fact there was initially a dog in the story, but in the end it made some of the technical aspects of the groups interacting harder. Like I said, I had too many characters and had to cut some of them out. The dog had to go this time. I’d love to write a book with a dog as one of the main characters. Adrian J. Walker’s The Last Dog on Earth, which is told half from a dog’s point of view, is one of my favourite books. It manages to be both funny and moving.
Iseult: You have had an extremely strong year, releasing Savage and now The Jam. What are you working on next, and when can we get our blood stained hands on it?
Dan: Thank you. I felt I should have finished another book by now but I’ve stalled somewhat. I’ve started two novels and put them both aside and then picked them up and put them down again.
One is called Precious Things about a twin who is the soul survivor of an infamous possession. Now she is an adult, pregnant and living with a new identity, when her sisters diary is posted through her letter box.
The other is called The Dunes about a guy who is selling the family home, a beachhouse and land, which had a history attached. There is a legend that the father and son of this particular family must cross the dunes in the summer of the son’s fifteenth year. The guy has avoided having children and thinks the legend is nonsense and has a very different memory of crossing the dunes with his father which doesn’t tally with the legend. How could it? It’s nothing but a story. Only just as he is about to sell the house he discovers he has a son he never knew he had, and he is the only next of kin. I like both ideas and intend to finish one of them in the next year.
I’m also working on a police procedural murder mystery series, but it is rather at the planning stage, but I intend for it to have horror elements sort of like CJ Tudor novels. We’ll see. I tend to work on the next thing that excites me and I’m still waiting for that spark.
Iseult: They are sound great. Thank you for talking with me today, Dan. Good luck on the release of The Jam tomorrow.