Keen-eyed observers of my Multiglom blog (if there are any) might recall that back in 2012, I wrote a Novel in Progress post about THE COMING THING, on which I had been working since the mid-1990s. Well, THE COMING THING is finished at last. Or at least as finished as it’s ever going to get. It’s massively flawed in such fundamental ways that I doubt it can ever be fixed, but I think it’s still quite readable, so I’m taking a publish-and-be-damned attitude. I need to move on.
Here’s an interview I did about the book with Gabrielle de Rospin, editor of Kulturdämmerung.
Gabrielle de Rospin: Why did it take you so long?
Anne Billson: I started writing THE COMING THING in, I think, 1996, before my second novel, a ghost story called Stiff Lips, was published by Pan Macmillan. It started life as a short story (called Born Again) that I wrote for Granta magazine, after they’d included me in their 1993 list of Best Young British Novelists (on the strength of my first novel, Suckers). I remember getting an offer for the film rights of Born Again, but I turned it down, because I wanted to expand on the short story. The Coming Thing was set on the eve of the Millennium, which of course at that time hadn’t yet happened, but I was determined to get it published before the end of the century.
Then I got sidetracked by writing a BFI Modern Classics monograph on John Carpenter’s The Thing, by my day job (I was film critic for the Sunday Telegraph) and finally by a sort of mid-life ennui which manifested itself by my suddenly deciding to chuck in my well-paid job, give up my fabulous flat in Ice Wharf (the swankiest place I’d ever lived in or will ever live in again, I imagine), and moving myself (and my lovely cat Tiger) to France to live the dream – a somewhat adolescent vision of living in Paris and writing novels. I decided that if I didn’t do it then (while I was in my mid-to-late forties), I would never do it. So I did it.
GdR: And how did that turn out for you?
AB: To begin with, it went swimmingly. In the first couple of years, I learnt to speak French fluently (though not without a great deal of humiliation and hard work), acquired a lovely French boyfriend 14 years my junior, and somehow managed to keep earning decent money by writing film reviews for the TV section of the Sunday Telegraph. I finished a first draft of THE COMING THING. The first hiccup came when I presented it to my agent, who told me it wasn’t working and that I should put it away in a drawer and forget about it.
GdR: And did you?
AB: I did. I decided the best way to cope with that disappointment was to write a new novel, and quickly. So I wrote a ghost story called The Ex (my inspirations were the stories of Robert Aickman and a 1947 Alastair Sim thriller called Green for Danger) which only took five years to finish. Long before that, I sent an early draft to my agent, who said he would get back to me, but never did, so I surmised he was no longer interested in what I was writing (he told me publishers were no longer interested in horror) and switched agents.
The new agent tried valiantly to sell The Ex to a publisher for a while; there was initial interest, but the feedback I received was that no-one was very comfortable with what they saw as a weird mix of horror and humour, so they didn’t know how to market it, and so everyone passed. After that, I sent several works-in-progress to the new agent, who sounded vaguely enthusiastic but stopped responding to emails, so I concluded she was no longer interested in anything I was writing and decided to go it alone.
I reworked The Ex, and finally published it myself in 2006, and then again, in a revised version, in 2012. It hasn’t sold many copies over the years, but in the end I was quite pleased with how it turned out. Unlike my other novels, the first-person narrator is male, so that was quite fun to do. A male friend, when I asked if he found the narrator authentically male, responded in the affirmative, though with the caveat that no man would ever be that observant about women’s shoes.
GdR: Why did you keep working on THE COMING THING? Why didn’t you just forget about it?
AB: It was unfinished business, and I’m bloody-minded.
GdR: What kind of changes has THE COMING THING undergone in twenty years?
AB: Massive ones. It started off as relatively straightforward first-person narrative (which I found a bit dull, to be honest), then changed to third-person, then back again to first-person. Then a relatively minor character suddenly came to life and staged a sort of coup d’état and took over half the narrative, which ended up half first-person, half third-person. I hadn’t been expecting that, but I ran with it. It created structural problems that I’ve never quite managed to solve, but I liked that character’s chutzpah, and what it brought to the story: an unreliable narrator, a lot of what we now call gaslighting, and a slight distancing (which I like to think of as Great Gatsby-style) from the principle action.
The mixture of first and third-person narrative gave me a lot of headaches, and I thought might put off readers, but then, on Facebook, Ramsey Campbell recommended a thriller which used the same mix, so I reckoned hey, why not give it a go? So again, I relaxed, and just ran with it.
GdR: I see you now live in Brussels. What happened to the dream of living in Paris and writing novels?
AB: My mother (who lived in Croydon) died of a brain tumour. Then my cat died. Then I split up with my boyfriend. Then the combination of the Recession, new technology and unfriendly exchange rate slashed my income in half. All this had an impact on my physical and mental health, though I only recognised that later. I moved from Le Marais to a small attic flat in the Bastille, where I experienced the Big Heatwave of 1993 – which was truly nightmarish.
Then I moved to a much nicer flat near Nation, which I did up. I lived there quite happily for a few years. But the service charges were much higher than expected and I found myself increasingly strapped for cash. While my income had halved, the cost of living in Paris had more than doubled – nearly all my French friends moved out to the provinces. My only capital was tied up in the flat, so I decided to sell it and move somewhere cheaper before my financial situation became too dire. I checked out a couple of Parisian banlieues beyond the périphérique, but decided that since I live and work on my own I needed to live more centrally, somewhere with instant access to shops and bars so I wouldn’t spend too much time in my own company and turn into a mad recluse. Some of my friends now lived in the south of France – around Marseille, Montpellier or Bordeaux – but after the great heatwave of 1993 I found hot weather intolerable. I also had my eye on Nantes for a while.
What scuppered the idea of provincial France for me, in the end, was the fact that Hollywood film releases were nearly always dubbed into French (VF: Version Française). In Paris I had been spoilt for choice, not just with the small rep cinemas and Cinémathèque, but with the wide range of new releases in VO: Version Originale. Since at the time I was still earning most of my income from writing about films for British publications, I needed access to VO.
I liked the idea of living in Berlin, but couldn’t bear the idea of having to catch a plane each time I wanted to return to London (which I did fairly often at that time – I don’t travel back nearly as often these days). I’d ruled out Brussels because people had told me it was expensive (which it is). But I found out by accident that rents were still a lot more affordable than in Paris or London. Other things I liked about Belgium, and specifically Brussels: I was fluent in one of the three official languages; there was a direct train to London; temperatures were slightly lower than in Paris, where I was starting to find the summers increasingly suffocating (Paris lies in a sort of geological depression, so the air is often toxic); I’d always loved Belgian Symbolist artists; the bars and the beer were great; there was a good tapdancing class; it’s extraordinarily cosmopolitan; the new film releases are in VO! Hurrah!
I did a couple of recces to Brussels, and decided it was somewhere I could live. It’s slightly more provincial than I’d like (shops and restaurants outside the centre have a tendency to close frustratingly early, and Sundays can be dead), there is a major traffic problem and the cost of living is cripplingly expensive. But it’s a beguiling city, a lot more interesting and mysterious than its detractors would have you believe. After six years, I still have the feeling there’s a lot more to discover – which for me is a huge point in its favour. My preferred analogy is that Paris is like a flirty little soubrette – everyone falls in love with her immediately – whereas Brussels is more of a femme fatale, who seduces you more gradually. The fact that a lot of people assume Brussels is boring only makes it more attractive to me. It’s not boring at all. This year I took Belgian nationality, principally to avoid any problems post-Brexit, but I think I would have taken it anyway. I like being Belgian.
GdR: Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but we’re supposed to be talking about THE COMING THING. What more can you tell us about that?
AB: Basically, it’s a story about a young actress called Nancy, who finds herself pregnant with the Antichrist, and a lot of people try to kill her, or control her, or exploit her. But she fights back. That’s probably all you need to know.
GdR: What about the character who you said staged a narrative coup d’état?
AB: That’s Belinda. She’s Nancy’s best friend, and she intends to stay that way. She wants to write Nancy’s story.
GdR: That sounds very meta.
AB: It’s not really.
GdR: But you’re Belinda?
AB: Good God, I hope not. I hope I’m a better writer than she is. Also, she does a lot of desperate and despicable things, and I sincerely hope I’m not that desperate and despicable.
GdR: Where is it set?
AB: London, which is where I started writing it. Also, since it’s set before the Millennium, I had to keep reminding myself that internet connections were still sluggish, Google and social media had yet to exist, that smartphones with built-in cameras were still in the future, that not everyone had mobile phones, and that 9/11 hadn’t yet happened.
GdR: What genre is it?
GdR: Is it funny?
AB: Maybe. I never set out to write ‘funny’, but it sometimes turns out that way. Because life is funny, don’t you think? Funny and horrible.
GdR: What are you working on now?
AB: I’ve written about 100 pages of Vampire Island, the sequel to Suckers. That’s set in the 1990s too, but takes place in London and Paris, like a vampire version of A Tale of Two Cities. Also, I’m turning my Cats on Film blog into a book, which will include my short story My Day by Jones (Alien from the perspective of the cat). Also, I’ve almost finished The Blood Pearl, the first in what was intended as a Young Adult trilogy set in England and France, though I’ve pretty much ditched the Young Adult label and am now writing it for me, or for the person I was when I was younger: it has vampires, witches, shapeshifters, Merlin, zombies and Parisian haute couture.
GdR: So we can expect those in another twenty years?
AB: In another twenty years I fully expect to be dead, if not from old age then from a nuclear holocaust or rising sea-levels. But what can you do in the meantime? You keep writing.
THE COMING THING is available in most formats (kindle, epub, PDF) from smashwords.
Kindle and paperback versions are available from all the amazons.