Cross-Ponding: a Conversation Between Barry J. House and Fran Friel

Fran Friel and Barry J. House interview each other (August 2007). This first half of the interview originally appeared on Whispers of Wickedness, while the second half appears on Horrorworld.

Fran Friel: Barry, you’re such a gentleman to let me begin the interview. Thanks for inviting me, and in your honor I have created a new word. You saw it in the title of this interview. When friends ‘correspond’ across the ‘pond’ of the Atlantic, it’s Cross-Ponding! See how much I like you? You’ve got your own word.

Okay, Mr House, let’s get down to business. So tell me where you live in the UK, and be geographical with me, if you will? You know how notoriously bad we Americans are with geography.

Barry J. House: Cross-Ponding, eh? *laughs* I like that, Fran. I’ve had other words made up for/about me over the years but that’s the best, by far! I live in Southampton, a city in the county of Hampshire, on the South Coast of England. The Titanic sailed from here. We’re on the edge of the New Forest, a National Park, originally created in 1079 by William the Conqueror for use as a hunting preserve. Our winters are very mild and the summers seem to be getting longer and hotter each year. Due to global warming? Probably.

I already know that you live in New England. Lots of familiar town names, there. What’s the weather like, though? Do you get extremes? (You’re probably already aware that we Brits like to talk about the weather). And getting down to the nitty-gritty now, can you tell me when you began to write seriously, and why?

FF: Having had the pleasure of living in Bristol, England for a couple of years, I experienced first hand the British habit of discussing the weather. In truth, Americans are about the same. As for Connecticut, we have great extremes from arid -12°C winters to very humid summers at 32°C and above. And it’s not uncommon for us to have a 17°C drop in temps in a 24 – hour period. We have a saying here in New England: If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute, it’ll change.

As for the ‘nitty-gritty,’ I guess I’ve been avoiding being a writer as well as preparing for it my whole life. I got ‘discovered’ at a very early age and the pressure to produce scared the dickens out of me, so I hid from writing until I got discovered again in high school. Same thing – I went running for the hills for fear of failure, I suppose. I ended up in university as a classical musician, but always the desire to write was there niggling at me. It wasn’t until nearly twenty years later and my second marriage, that I found my way back home to writing. My husband’s endless and, to this day, unfaltering encouragement is the real reason I finally started writing seriously. I began with a couple of writing classes in 2004, then I joined The Horror Library in 2005 and I’ve been hammering away ever since.

Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t start my writing career earlier in life, but in truth, the timing is perfect. My skin is a bit thicker, I’m a lot more patient, and I won’t starve if folks hate my work. That makes writing a lot more fun.

So what got you writing, Barry, and what keeps you writing? What inspires you, and what do you love and hate about writing? That should be an easy one. *snickers*

BH: My experience is not so very different to your own, I guess. English was my favourite subject at school, and, on more than one occasion, I came top in my year. Unfortunately, much of my later school life was spent playing truant; I got involved with the wrong type of people – for reasons of necessity more than choice – and, as you can imagine, this social group frowned upon the use of ‘big’ words; I found myself actively suppressing my vocabulary when out on the street. While I could always give at least as good as I got in an honest fight, I saw no point in actually provoking one. I would store up all that angst, only for it to come spilling out again in my writing, the moment I was alone in my bedroom. A defence mechanism, I guess.

As a result, I’ve always found it more comfortable to write than to talk – but that’s not to say that I can’t hold a reasonable conversation. *winks* I’m also a lifelong reader of horror, SF and fantasy, so I see it as a natural progression that I’ve finally brought my two passions together.

Despite the poor school attendance record, I eventually cleaned up my act and did well enough to secure an engineering technician apprenticeship. Until recently, I worked as a designer in the aerospace industry. Now, I write full-time. I, too, am lucky enough to have a spouse who gives me a phenomenal amount of encouragement and support.

I love whittling away at a sentence, or passage, in a story until I believe I’ve pinned down the concept I have in mind – like any other dedicated writer, I guess. Sometimes I get bogged down, though, struggling with one tiny area until I’m pulling my hair out, when I know damn well that I should just move on and revisit the offending piece, later. I hate giving up on a detail or a thread I’m chasing, but, if it doesn’t work in the context of the story, it simply has to come out. Sometimes, however, that can be agonizing.

Now, Fran, do you have a day job or do you consider writing to be your career, and who or what has influenced your writing?

FF: I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years, but I was a holistic therapist for nearly the last two decades. I started closing down my private practice a couple of years ago to pursue writing full-time. I’m blessed to have a partner that encourages this habit, so you’re all stuck with me now.

I have a lifetime of writing influences, but from the outset I was fortunate to have parents that challenged me to be curious about the world, and led me to believe that I could do anything I put my mind to. Both of those gifts have made writing a joyful pursuit. For me, discovering a story is like unlocking a secret door that only I can open. I love that feeling and the mental process of puzzling it out for others to share.

My literary influences are too many to list, but Neil Gaiman’s short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, seemed to be the final catalyst. Little whispers seemed to be woven between the lines of those stories and they resonated like a tuning fork inside me. Gave me the itch, the urgency to finally start writing. The work of Tim Lebbon (Dusk), Christopher Golden (The Myth Hunters), Joe Hill (20th Century Ghosts) and Craig Davidson (Rust and Bones) have been more recent inspirations. But the brilliant writing and the priceless encouragement from authors, Gary Braunbeck, F. Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone, Stephen Mark Rainey, Terri Brown-Davidson and James Newman, has guided me along a much steadier path than I would have followed without them.

Now, Barry, would you care to share a brief list of your favorite US authors? UK authors? What do you see as the difference in writing styles between our countries, if any? And what are you reading at the moment?

BH: Fran, I’m glad you said a ‘brief’ list, because I could go on for days. However, off the top of my head I would say that my favourite US authors – both classic and contemporary, and across the horror, SF and fantasy genres – include Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Jack Vance, Julian May and Tim Powers; UK favourites include M. R. James, John Wyndham, H. G. Wells, Michael Moorcock, Graham Joyce and David Gemmell.

On the whole, I haven’t noticed any tangible differences between US and UK writing styles. I see style as subjective – to a certain degree, of course – and different writers (and readers) have different ideas about the components of a good writing style.

Was it George Bernard Shaw who said: ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’? While this may still be true in a tiny number of situations, I don’t believe that the notion has any bearing on style.

To answer your question on current reading, I’ve just finished Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box and I’m about to pick up Gary McMahon’s, All Your Gods are Dead.

While we’re on the subject, Fran, what are you reading at the moment? And I also wanted to ask you about style. How would you describe your writing style?

FF: Right now I’m reading, On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association. I expected it to be good, but it’s actually superb. Edited by the brilliant Mort Castle, it’s filled with essays on writing and publishing horror from some of the industry’s very best authors. And for pleasure, one of my happy addictions is reading Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction series and right now I’m reading, Best of the Best Volume 2: 20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels. It’s sinfully good reading. Right out of the gate, Gardner begins with Robert Silverberg’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ both demoralizing and inspiring as a writer, but as a reader this is akin to decadent joy. *fondles Dozois’s book* Oh, sorry. You asked about style…let’s see.

My style is still developing, Barry. I went from adjective laden writing with far too much exposition, to studying a form of writing that was pure scene – All show/No tell. I took that No Tell challenge very seriously and spent a lot of time slicing and dicing my writing to try to get it cleaner and more direct. Writing without exposition became a bit phobic for me, obsessive that I am, so I’m working my way back to middle ground. I have to actually struggle to be more wordy these days, well, at least in my fiction.

What I’m ultimately striving for is transparent writing, the kind that disappears from the reader’s attention so that they can dissolve into the story, with the words becoming invisible sails for their journey. I must confess the desire to turn a poignant or witty phrase on occasion, but transparency best suits my goal of storytelling and transporting my readers. You’ll usually find a bit of humor in my work, and hopefully a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, point of humanity’s foibles, pain, and beauty.

Barry, you know I’ve been a big fan since listening to your story, Glow in the Dark, at MySpace. Can you tell me a little about the process of producing that audio/vid story? And please do tell, what are you working on now, audio and otherwise?

For Barry’s answer and the remainder of this conversation go to HorrorWorld.

Fran Friel’s website:

Barry House on MySpace:

This interview originally appeared on Whispers of Wickedness, and is reproduced here with permission.