My Interview With Clive Barker

From 'How to Survive a Day Job' (2005)

You’re an artist. You work considerably longer than the standard 40 hours per week to hone and perfect your craft. You desire and deserve to finally earn a living through your art.

Do you ever feel as though the gods are laughing at you?

When in doubt, always remember…


I interviewed Clive over a decade ago for an inspirational non-fiction book, How to Survive a Day Job. My intent was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.

Of all the interviews (over 70) in that long out-of-print volume, I have always found Clive’s to be particularly inspiring. He graciously consented to this interview with one proviso: that I understood going in that he had never held a day job.

“I refused to become a wage slave,” he explained.

I agreed, and we were off to the races...

Clive: In order to tell a story with real conviction, I think, you need to be inside the personalities of everybody — from the major characters to the minor characters to the dog that’s in the street — who pass through your narrative. And you have to be willing to extend your imagination to people whose point of view you might not necessarily sympathize with were you not a writer.

So it’s particularly true, obviously, of my villains. My villains tend to be given pretty decent reasons for doing what they’re doing, though decent is the wrong word. Pretty complex and believable reasons for what they’re doing. I also think it’s important for minor characters to have a voice and to have specificity.

Let’s say you have a group scene. I’ve just done a scene for Abarat II. During a flood, a lot of human beings, a lot of strange creatures from the country of Abarat, a dog, and a bunch of other characters, are all on a roof surrounded by flood water. And as I’m writing this scene, I’m putting on skins. I’m putting on the skin of Bill Quackenbush, who’s a man of politics and whose worldview could not be further from my own, but who needs to be spoken truthfully. I need to allow his point of view to come through clearly, and I shouldn’t have my finger on the scales, because that’s not good storytelling.

In other words, everybody should be allowed to be themselves, I think. And you allow the reader to make his or her mind up as to how they feel about these characters. This isn’t that old Victorian melodrama; the villain isn’t twiddling his mustache and saying, “Ah, now I will throw you off and out into the storm!” I’m trying for something a little more subtle than that, and I think most writers are nowadays. We’re looking for shades of, indeed, good and evil.

It’s my experience as a fifty-one-year-old man who’s been writing now, I guess, thirty years on and off, that readers respond very strongly to being allowed to make up their own minds about the moral values — or the moral worth, I should say — of the characters that they are being presented with. So I want to put on these skins pretty even-handedly — put on the skins of the good guys and the bad guys and, as I said, the dogs occasionally and the cats and so on — and move around the scene candidly and honestly.

I was born in ’52 in post-war Liverpool, which was a pretty desolate place. The war was seven years over, the city had been very badly bombed, there were a lot of bomb sites in the city still. It was a frightening city, a violent city, a city with a lot of racial problems in the past and a lot of poverty.

So I’m living in a row house near Penny Lane, which is The Beatles, from The Beatles song. I was born right off Penny Lane. And really, I was looking all the time for ways to let my imagination escape. We didn’t have a television. We had a radio, but it was pretty much under control of Mom and Dad. Besides which, the kind of music that was available at that time really wasn’t the kind of music that would have turned me on, so that really wasn’t much of a source of interest.

The great thing was to be able to go to the public library. I don’t know how old you had to be to go from the children’s section to the adult section — it probably was eighteen — but I think at the age of thirteen or fourteen I persuaded them I pretty much had grown through the children’s section and was allowed prematurely into the adult section, which was a wonderland. It was like opening up doors to a treasure palace to be able to get into all these other books.

And we’re talking about, in this case, a library, which at that time probably would have been the size of your front room and your kitchen or something. It was not a big room, not a big place at all. But it had books. It had hundreds and thousands of books, and that was wonderful.

But there was also an annual ritual, which was hugely important for me, which was going to the pantomime. I knew nothing about theater, except what I knew via pantomime. And pantomime was a taste of something miraculous.

For a kid being brought up now in these days of where every weekend seems to bring some new $100 million special effects extravaganza, pantomime would look ludicrously low tech and ineffectual, I suppose. But when I went in, when I was six or seven, which would have been late fifties, it was a wonderland. The colors, the fact the people were dressing up… There was a lot of cross-dressing in panto, which is a whole other subject, but the principal boy of the, as he’s called, of the pantomime, is played by a girl, a gorgeous girl. Don’t ask why — it goes back to the nineteenth century, and it’s very strange — but that’s the way it is, so you actually have these two girls playing the love interest for half of the story. One in the dress of Dick Whittington or Robin Hood or whatever, and the other girl playing Maid Marion.

You also saw another piece of cross-dressing, because you had this extraordinary Dame character, who is the comic relief of the piece, that was usually some famous comedian who plays an embittered and comical old woman in the story. It’s a tradition that’s gone back hundreds of years. I suppose it would take its roots from commedia dell’ arte and the whole idea of telling stories from traditional values that can be told over and over again, and the cross-dressing and so on was all part of that. I used to love it; I used to live for this one trip that we took every Christmas — as close to Christmas there as you possibly could — to see the panto. So that was a big deal.

The puppet theater was another place where I got a little taste of this. In the center of Liverpool is a huge, truly monumental building called St. George’s Hall, which is a dark, rather lowering nineteenth-century building, an oppressively large, oppressively dark, pompous building, if you will. But on its steps every Saturday morning there was a Punch & Judy show, and Punch & Judy was, again, taking its roots from commedia dell’ arte. Punch is in the casual culture now, but this was a very violent little puppet show, which each lasted about fifteen minutes… it was an entry into another world.

This was something that I could do something about — that I had a panto of my own, that I could have a puppet show of my own — so that’s where I started to really figure out that I could entertain people. It was by creating my own puppet theater and taking it into the back alley behind our house, which was not the most clean or best-kept of houses. I mean, you’re talking about trash and garbage cans in every direction, but the other kids gathered, and on Saturdays and Sundays I would set up my booth and run a show.

I’ve always taken my models in terms of the artists that I admire, from polymaths — people who do many, many things and don’t necessarily limit themselves in terms of their self-definition. There are great examples of this everywhere. Jean Cocteau, the French filmmaker, novelist, artist, painter, ballet designer. You know, a great example is a wonderful artist and novelist called Gunter Grass, a German. Wonderful stuff. There’s no reason why an artist has to practice in only one medium, it seems to me. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for keeping as many balls in the air as possible.

There’s a part of me which is very solitary and inward turning and is only really happy when I’m in my own company, and there’s another part of me which really enjoys the sense of community that comes with making a movie or doing theater. I try to create situations in which I can answer both those needs.

So right through my twenties, I had a theater company with actors, who in some cases have gone on to do very significant things. Doug Bradley, who was one of my best friends at school, has of course the Hellraiser movies where he plays Pinhead. Oliver Parker, who is also in the troop now, directs movies — An Ideal Husband and Othello, with Laurence Fishburne, and so on. We’ve had another of our crew members become a stand-up comedian in England, and yet another one became an opera singer. I think yet another one has become a very successful theater director.

So, in a way, all that proves the span of things of artistic directions, which all came from this little knot of people who all happened to be in school together. There’s a lot, you know. We’ve got a filmmaker, a film actor. We’ve actually got two filmmakers — including myself — an actor, a painter, film directors, an opera singer, and a stand-up comedian. That mix, that vital-for-me mix, of points of view… it wasn’t a democracy; it was a benign dictatorship, and I was self-proclaimed dictator, but I think everybody got their point of view across.

And, interestingly, I was speaking to Doug Bradley three or four days ago, and he is presently touring with a show he has created, which is about death, in which he presents poems and texts about death and makes an extraordinary entertainment of them. It sounds dark, but he manages to make something both life-enhancing in them and immensely entertaining as a whole process. And he said that he found that the experiences that we had as a company of going into a venue — very often with only an hour to spare, because we were often going in to play in school gyms or village halls or whatever — is still standing him in good stead thirty years later.

Certainly, it’s true for me that when I get to filmmaking, and I’m trying to help my fellow filmmakers — people making the movie with me, my designers, my actors, whatever — giving them a sense of what I’m after and, again, a sense of community and a sense that this is our movie, not my movie, all of that stuff. I got my first experience of that in The Dog Company, and those things that you do pretty young in life were invaluable, in truth, because they taught us skills that we could not have learned any other place.

Back in the sixties and seventies, you had to sign on to the social security system in England; you had to sign on to do a job of some kind or other to say that you are available for a job, so in the first few years I got away with this by signing on that I was a poet. And as there weren’t a lot of jobs available for poets, they seemed to be quite happy with that. That meant the social security actually paid me — I don’t know what it would be now — probably twenty dollars a week, something like that, maybe twenty-five, to live on.

And I had a vision of what I was going to do. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I was determined to do it. After a period, of course, they catch on to the fact that — Barker is signing on to be a poet. Who is he kidding? He doesn’t even want a job — and they start to get heavy with you. And I was called into what was called the locked office procedure. I don’t know whether they still have them, perhaps not now, but the procedure was basically a piece of well rehearsed intimidation in which you are called into the offices of the DHSS, the Department of Health and Social Security, and sat down and given in a very English way a jolly good talking to.

They did this by locking the office behind you, sort of, you know: We’re going to get this or that one.

And I knew this was coming and I thought, I need them to understand that I’m not a waster. I need them to understand that I will one day be in the position, I believe, to pay back all that I’ve taken from the social security system in twenty dollars a week in taxes, that I will be a creative member of society, and hopefully a useful member of society, but that nobody is an artist overnight, and certainly nobody is a successful artist overnight, putting aside the occasional rock artist phenomenon or whatever.

But that wasn’t the area I was playing in. I was talking about theater and writing and painting, and those things don’t happen in a heartbeat. So here I am — I may be twenty-eight, I’d been out of university six years; I hadn’t had a job — and I get called to the office. Yes, indeed, this fellow locks the door. His name was Mr. Flint, which was a perfect name for him, because he was a gray, thin, threatening-looking individual who had been chosen for this job, obviously, because there was an element of subtle intimidation in it.

So he gets me in there, and I say, “Mr. Flint, before we begin … I don’t want you to think that I am sitting back, taking twenty dollars (or whatever, it was in pounds, eleven pounds) out of the system every week, and not planning and not working towards a future.”

And to that end, I brought a big plastic bag with the plays that I had been writing, and I took out maybe six of them, which included Dog and The History of the Devil, which incidentally we just sold to the Sci Fi Channel; they’re going to do a six-hour miniseries. And so, I took out these six plays, and I said, “This is what I do. And I do it daily, and I keep very strict hours, and I really have a vision that at some point this is going to turn into a real paying job for me. And all I ask is that I be given the time by the system to let that happen.”

“Let’s see these plays,” he says. Well, I push the plays — because there’s quite a heap of them — across the desk to him. He lights up a cigarette — it was back in the times when everybody smoked — started to look through these things, and his face softened.

After a while, he says, “I wrote a play once.”

There’s this sort of falling note in his voice, and I said, “Did you, Mr. Flint?”

And he said, “Yeah, it was about working for the DHSS.”

I said, “Yeah, that must be pretty rotten.”

He said, “Yeah, it’s really tragic being here, and I hate it, and it was all about how much I hated it then. And I sent it to the BBC, but they didn’t want it.” And he passed the plays back to me, and he said, “I’m going to write on your forms that you are never to be bothered again. And if anybody does ever bother you again, here’s my number and my extension. Call me, and I’ll make sure that they’re called away.”

So I don’t know where Mr. Flint is, but God bless him. And it lasted another … This happened when I was around twenty-eight; I signed my book deal for Books of Blood just around my thirtieth birthday. They came out when I was thirty-two. And so I had another three years, probably, on the dole, so probably a total of nine years on the dole, which was not easy.

I say “on the dole” — what that means is the same as social security. Welfare. It’s just, you’re living a very minimalist life, you know. There’s no luxury. There’s no getting in a taxicab, there’s no going out for an extended dinner, or whatever. But I look back on those times, and they were extraordinary times. And I was depressed sometimes, because it wasn’t happening fast enough, but somehow I had this internal faith that it would all come true.

I’ve never concealed anything from anybody. I have been true to myself in terms of what I want to do next. It hasn’t always worked in terms of aesthetically or fiscally. There have been times when I’ve made a decision to change direction, and it’s taken awhile for the audiences to catch up with me, if you will. Thief of Always always sells a lot of copies now, but when it first came out it was slow, because people were going, “Well, this is Clive Barker. What’s he doing writing this?”

My feeling is, however, two things: Firstly, I think people are much, much smarter than the purveyors of their entertainments generally allow. The people who make movies, who produce movies, who distribute movies, don’t give audiences enough credit, I think. If you think about, let’s say, the career of Stanley Kubrick; he made science fiction movies, he made war movies, he made period pictures… he made just about every kind of picture. He made Spartacus. He made Lolita. He made every kind of thing that interested him; he put it in front of his camera.

We live in a culture which is very concerned to compartmentalize us all the time, no question, and, you know, there’s already somebody who’s looking at the title of your book and wondering whether it’s going to go into self-help or not. And that’s wretched, because actually art doesn’t work that way. Creation doesn’t work that way. I don’t get up in the morning and think, Well, today I really should do exactly what I did yesterday. Why would I? I did that yesterday. And so for me, the thing has always been to be, I suppose, a bit of a moving target. I mean, you don’t like what I’m doing right now? Wait five minutes.

Similarly, as far as the homosexuality is concerned, it’s me, it’s who I am. Again, it’s a question of being true to who you are. Take it or leave it. I mean, there are people, plenty of people, I’m sure, who will say, “I’ll leave it.” Hey, that’s fine. No problem. You’re probably going to pass by a bunch of pictures you would have liked and a bunch of stories you would have enjoyed, but because you’re bothered about the sexuality of the author. I guess that means you wouldn’t have read a book by Plato or gone to the Sistine Chapel, either.

I think we have to go with these things as though we expect the best possible outcome rather than going in with confrontational tones. And you know what I’m talking about. I feel as though one of the things I’ve done is said, “Yes, I’m gay. Next question… Uh, sure, I write horror. Now I write fantasy fiction. And, by the way, do you know the difference between Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” I’m not saying I’m Shakespeare, but I’m saying there’s no reason why you can’t move from the play in which the girl is raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t express herself and move on to a play about fairies ten years later.

We change. We are many things. And even though I think the publishers would often like me to be slightly simpler, slightly less likely to change and turn another corner, in the end, what keeps the business of going to the desk exciting to me is the fact that I’m not writing what I’ve written before. I’m always trying to find fresh material, fresh ways to go at things. I’m fifty-one. I think I’ve got another thirty, thirty-five years of creation in me. That’s a lot of time. A lot of painting, a lot of filmmaking, a lot of writing, a lot of technologies that we don’t even know about yet. I’m excited by the prospect.

You have to plan. I think one of the things that has saved me through that bad period, and that saved me through other periods when things have gone awry, is that I didn’t let things become abstracted. It’s too easy for the fears to become abstracted. Abstracted fears seem bigger than they actually are, so you start to have some vague anxieties — Oh, the children won’t be fed, the house will be taken away from me… and all. Suddenly, you’re living in a world of fear.

And what I tend to do is make lists — I’m an inveterate list maker — of what am I going to do next, what are my next approaches. I have notebooks — not even notebooks, they’re actually clipboards with college-ruled paper in them — in about ten locations around the house, and there are pens beside them, and so that means that at any time that I feel the urge, anytime a solution occurs, I don’t let it go. It’s right there. I’m not spending my time racing after an idea that I thought about yesterday but is now gone. And every couple of weeks, I collate all the pieces of paper that I’ve got.

You’d be amazed at the number of things that you write down in the heat of the moment that seemed so smart, and you think, “I’m not smart enough to have thought that.” Maybe you were watching a TV show, and an idea came, and you wrote it down, or maybe you were watching the fish go around in your aquarium, and you got into the zone, and you wrote down a sentence, or you woke in the middle of the night, and you wrote down a sentence. And I’m not talking about necessarily creative writing here, now. I’m talking about solutions, problems, and that’s what I mean about planning. You don’t… you can’t hold these things as abstract desires: I want to be a writer.

You have to plan to give two hours a day every day to the business of writing. And if that means you make a list of the things that take up the time in your day… you see how you prioritize those things, and you see where those hours are, and you see what you can give up. I can give up going bowling. I can give up whatever it is and find those two hours.

I mean, we all know of the novels that were written on kitchen tables, like the first Harry Potter novel, you know, written on a kitchen table by a woman alone raising children, a one-parent family, in other words. And plenty of first novels written in a snatched two hours between five and seven thirty in the morning when the kids were raised from bed and had to be up for school. You write for two hours, and after a year you have a book. But you need to plan.

What I find when I talk to people who are frustrated about the direction of their lives is very often that they have a vague frustration — often it’s not so vague — they often don’t have anybody to talk to about it. Very often they’re surrounded by naysayers, and that would take me to the second point, which is: don’t share your ambitions with anybody who you sense is going to be negative about them. Just don’t do it. That could be your wife; that could be your husband.

Just — you want to write a novel, you want to write poetry? Just find the time and write it, and see how it comes along. There’s nothing worse than announcing to the world that you’re going to write the great American novel, and years later they’re still tapping their toes. And so, part of it is being smart about that.

And I think the third, probably the smartest part, is that: know that there are myriad examples of people who began relatively late in their lives. Gauguin took his pen and picked up his paint brushes at the age of forty-two and painted some of the most amazing paintings that we have in our culture. There are lots of people who, yes, started early and have brilliant and glorious careers, but they very often burn out early, too.

It’s never too late to start. It truly is never too late to start. That’s the great thing about writing, and I think this is also true about painting; I’m not so sure about filmmaking, which I think is a separate issue for a bunch of reasons. But certainly this is true of painting and writing; nobody cares how old you are. Nobody cares how old the person wielding the pen is.

If you have an idea, a vision, a point of view, a story to tell, I don’t care if you’re fifteen — the author of Eragon, the kids novel, which is on the best-seller list right now, I think he was fifteen when he started writing it — but then there are other people, lots of other people who don’t start writing until they’re forty, fifty, sixty, and maybe they needed that time. Maybe they needed to have the space for the wisdom that they wanted to impart in these books to grow inside them.

We’re not all spat out into the world complete. We need to have experiences, and very often, I think, goodness knows, the things I wrote when I was fifteen or sixteen I thoroughly destroyed. It’s only a little bit later in life you start to get some experience to write about. So I think those are three pretty straightforward things.

What do I aspire to now? More of the same, with differences.

It’s self-explanatory, I think. I want to continue to make work, but I don’t want to make any work that resembles anything I’ve made before. I would want to die having just had a new really great idea. And I think the cool thing about the life of art is that it takes a huge amount away in terms of energies and frustration and sometimes anger, yes, but it also feeds the soul.

The journeys that I’ve taken as a painter and as a writer, in some instances as a filmmaker, have made me richer as a human being, I think, and therefore, paradoxically, more eager to write than ever before. I have more things to impart now at the age of fifty-one than I had twenty years ago when I published my first book.

And so it’s an appetite, which grows in the satisfying, if that makes sense. And, whereas most appetites you feed, and it’s over, with the art experience, if you’re doing it right, what it does is it opens one door and then another door and then a multiplicity of doors, and now there are doors everywhere, and they’re all full of wonderful possibilities.

It’s all about possibilities.

Joel Eisenberg
Joel Eisenberg

Joel is a writer-producer, and partner in TV development group Council Tree Productions. He has developed projects for Ovation TV, TNT, Decades TV and FOX Studios, among others. 

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My Interview With Clive Barker