Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Dead Man Talking #3 - FG Cottam

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews FC Cottam

One of my favourite authors over recent years has been the excellent FC Cottam, author of such literary dread-driven novels such as The House of Lost Souls, Dark Echo, The Magdalena Curse, The Waiting Room and Brodmaw Bay. I remember feeling quite bereft when Irish writer Denis McEoin finally folded away his pseudonym, Jonathan Aycliffe, like a tattered and soiled burial wrap. Where was my fix for claustrophobic, tersely written stories of the supernatural going to come from next? After all, there's only so many times you can re-read MR James. Then a friend suggested I might like to read a novel by this guy called FG Cottam and suddenly my reading spectrum was rendered whole and complete again. Once more I had good reason to draw the curtains, light a roaring fire in the hearth and pay some jobless blokes to howl like banshees down my chimney and spray pretend rain against my windows (well, it was the middle of summer). When I heard FG might be amenable to an interview regarding the publication of his new novel, 'The Colony', I spruced myself up, cycled all the way from Glasgow to London and presented myself at his door - only to be told by a grim faced FG, 'Sorry, it's the Dead Cleric or nothing, mate.' Damn. One of these days, McQuade........................

Strachan McQuade RIP

FG Cottam VIP

 McQuade: Hang about. Where’s that theme music I was promised? (house band strikes up ‘Putting on the Style’ and Strachan tap dances for a few moments before losing a foot which flies through the air to become firmly wedged in the sound hole of a trombone) Impressive eh? Now then Cottam, having read a broad selection of your published work, I’ve observed a definite trend in the subject matter leaning towards malign spirits and demonology. Are you deliberately trying to scare your readers? And if so, where does this glaring flaw in your moral character stem from?

Cottam: I am deliberately trying to scare my readers and do this by scaring myself to the point where sometimes, if I'm alone and it’s dark, I have to stop. Some eras strike me as intrinsically sinister, none more than the 1920s, which features a lot in my fiction. But I can do contemporary chills too. There's a bit in The House of Lost Souls where a cassette player - unplugged and without batteries - starts to play a cassette when its owner knows the player isn't loaded. That left me uneasy for a while around audio equipment. It's more malign imagination than glaring moral flaw.

McQuade: I've been reading your new novel 'The Colony' where the plot is centred around a remote Scottish island. This has to be the scariest thing I've read since Watson gave me '20 Interesting Things to do With a Rancid Cadaver' for Xmas. By Jove, I'd no idea that an ounce of margarine and a woolly hat could provide such entertainment. Still, much as I enjoyed your new book, I was slightly disappointed there was no mention of shinty matches or pass-the-haggis (a game usually played the morning after a Burns Supper). Why don't you talk a bit about 'The Colony' while I pass the time playing darts. (thock, thock, thock) Bullseye!

Cottam: The Colony was written straight after Brodmaw Bay. Bay was character-driven and concentrated on a nuclear family and their immersion into a small and secluded coastal community. After writing it, I wanted to do something event-driven with a much bigger cast of characters. In The Colony, a media magnate tries to halt the dwindling circulation of his flagship news-stand title by investigating the New Hope Island vanishing - a mystery that has puzzled the world for almost two centuries.
A community of 200 people disappeared abruptly. They left no trace. Now, a team of hand-picked experts is assembled, with no expense spared, to discover what happened to them. The story of the New Hope expedition – and its findings – will run as an old fashioned rolling exclusive. Except that when they get to their isolated lump of granite in the Hebrides, the expedition members find rather more than they bargained for.

McQuade: (Thock Thock Thock) Still playing. Continue please.

Cottam: As you wish, reverend. In musical terms, Brodmaw Bay was a solo acoustic performance. The Colony is the full band all plugged in with the amps cranked up to 11. That analogy might be lost on a deceased man of the cloth; but I can assure you that not a single haggis endured a moment’s unnecessary suffering during the writing of the novel.   

McQuade: I'm most pleased to hear that. As someone who sends five shillings to The Haggis Sanctuary every month, I do get hot under the clerical collar to hear of the poor beasties suffering ill-treatment. Now, in your book ‘The House of Lost Souls’ I was most impressed to see that you had recruited Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason to play a prominent role. Have any other members of Pink Floyd appeared in your novels? I'm sure I spotted Dave Gilmour serving up a pint of best bitter in a pub scene. Also in the same book, a wicked character named Dennis Wheatley makes a surprise cameo role. Did you base him loosely on the famous writer occult writer of the same name? I only ask as both men wear smoking jackets.

Cottam: My character shares Nick Mason's name, but none of his rhythmic talent. When Pink Floyd were lording it in the album charts, I was more of a Faces fan. Most of the music in that novel is the output of people who died at their own hand. It's distinctly posthumous and generally unwelcome. Dennis Wheatley I have always suspected far more involved in the dark practices he described than he ever let on. And you can't libel a person when they're dead, thankfully. So far, he hasn't come back to haunt me.
(Editor - Give it time FG. Give it time)

McQuade. Sportsmen, catwalk models, and pop singers  attract attention from perfume manufacturers to bestow brand name scents upon them. For some reason no writer in history has ever been accorded such an accolade. (Editor - and please don't bother writing in to complain. Katy Price IS NOT A WRITER). However FG, you definitely look like one of those square-jawed blokes on the telly who allows cameramen into his bathroom first thing in the morning in order to advertise razor blades, so perhaps one day, who knows? Maybe there could be a Cottam Cologne. If so, what would it smell like? And don't bother saying dog's liver with onions because I already tried that and it was rubbish.

Cottam: Square-jawed is one way of putting it. My teenage son told me I look less like a novelist than a contract killer in the computer games he plays. I have to cite the Jessica Rabbit defence – not bad, just drawn that way. I wouldn’t have thought commercial sponsorship your area of expertise, but if IWC or Omega opt to sponsor authors, I’ll happily wear the watch.

Scent is actually quite important in my novels. My glamorous women always seem to wear Shalimar. The male ghosts smell of cigars and camphor and brilliantine but if they do wear cologne, it’s a dab of Vetiver. Both of those are Guerlain fragrances and I think both date from the early 20th century. If you want a bit of trivia, reverend, Van Morrison name-checks Shalimar on Astral Weeks. And Peter Sellers always wore Vetiver.

McQuade: Nothing wrong with a bit of brilliantine, sonny. I never go to a roller-disco without a dab of the stuff. Always works for me. Now, what is it with you and Kate Rusby? You seem to enjoy promoting 'The Barnsley Nightingale' in your novels. Is she your favourite singer or maybe a second cousin you're obliged to plug or suffer being shunned from family weddings and funerals? I've nothing against subliminal advertising. Indeed, back when I was still in the pulpit and reading a long dreary Sunday sermon, I would sometimes hold up a bag of ripe tomatoes or a pork chop, a favour for which I'd be paid ten shillings by the village greengrocer or butcher. Got a bit out of hand when the undertaker asked me to snowboard down the nave on a coffin lid at the Xmas service.

Cottam: Oh, Strachan, you flinty old soul. Not everything in life is profit-driven. I’ll bet your pulpit had a coin box attached, like one of those children’s rides outside Tesco. (Editor - You're spot on there, FG)
I first heard Kate Rusby when Robert Elms played Sweet Bride from the album Sleepless on his radio show ten or 11years ago. His verdict was that it sounded, ‘A bit Cecil Sharp House.’ But my ears had just been sent to heaven for four minutes.
She’s the only singer who makes me cry. I can’t listen to her rendition of John Barbury without welling up.
The song that features in The Colony is The Recruited Collier. Because I make my novels up as I go along, I didn’t know at the outset how important it was going to be to the plot. When the character who first hears it recognizes the song, that’s to tell the reader that there’s a bit more to him than appearances might suggest. But then of course it later becomes crucial in supplying clues as to what happened on New Hope.
The song was written at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and well might have been familiar to members of the New Hope community. But if I wasn’t a Kate Rusby fan I would never have heard it and it would never have assumed the significance it does in the story.

McQuade: Another astute observation I've made about your story-lines is that military chaps seem to pop up here, there and everywhere. Some have even been cunningly camouflaged as trees, bushes and assorted maritime accessories, but I'm wise to that sort of ruse having once been official Chaplain to the Royal Highland Fusiliers during the Great War. All that walking about with my feet splayed at right angles to my shins played hell with my arthritis and the glued-on moustache brought my top lip out in a nasty rash, but apart from that the war itself wasn't too bad. Sorry I'm losing track here...... (Editor - don't we know it) What I meant to ask was, given the amount of uniformed personnel in your books, can we assume that you yourself have bravely served Queen and country? And don't say if you tell me you'll have to kill me. You'll be wasting your time on that score.

Cottam: I've never been in the armed services. I get asked that a lot by blokes who have and when I tell them I haven't they tend to nod and wink knowingly. But I really never have. I have given some of my characters military credentials as a sort of short-hand for letting the reader know they're resourceful and physically formidable. But the male characters from whom most is asked in the last two books are not physical men at all. I found it quite refreshing to make them so fallible and think they're easier people for most readers to identify with.

McQuade: This may come as a shock to your adoring readership, but my research team (Editor - he means me) have unearthed a scurrilous rumour that you were once employed as magazine editor of a Men's Health periodical. Obviously you'll have had to delve deep into the world of prostate malfunctions and the mind-bending problem of penile priapisms. I'd like to quote one of the magazine's cover blurbs which boldly stated - 'Get Big Arms in Three Weeks'. Exactly how much extra length to someones arm could you achieve before they resembled a baboon? And what method was used? A medieval rack? Hanging people from beams with clootie dumplings attached to their feet? It all sounds extrordinary to me.

Cottam: Before Men’s Health, Strachan, and at the risk of a volcanic eruption in your blood pressure, I must confess that I edited FHM. In my day it majored on sport and fashion rather than scantily clad soap starlets. It was the early 90s, we were literally making up a magazine sector (men’s interest) as we went along and it was incredible fun.

Men’s Health was derided by its rivals pre-launch as a magazine for neurotic losers and hypochondriacs. Within six months it was dominating its market sector and totally setting the editorial agenda. But even my own staff lampooned the cover-lines. ‘Bigger Abs – In Seconds!’ ‘Drop 20 pounds – Today!’

It wasn’t funny when I was woken up by my American employers at two in the morning to be told I’d spelt ‘tyre’ as in ‘Spare Tyre’ wrongly on the cover. But Men’s Health is service journalism of the highest quality. That’s service as in advice, rather than the sort of service over which you presided in church. It sells because if you do what it tells you to your life gets better.

As a bonus, most people in the world of glossy magazines are women. It's often said that I write strong women. That's because I met women working in magazines who combined intelligence, formidable organisational skills, strong wills and glamour. They're really out there!

McQuade: I'll have to take your word for that, FG. In my village those sort of sassy women would have been branded harlots and lucky not to be tarred and feathered before being driven out of town...... in a Citroen 2CV (to further embarrass them). Just another example of society changing for the worst. 
Anyway, last question before I untie you and set you loose from that chair. When out and about signing copies of my best seller 'Invergallus' - I am constantly asked by adoring readers what my main influences are from the world of both literature and shinty. For some odd reason they always look shocked when I answer Barbara Cartland to both questions. So tell me, what writers provide the inky-black, well-spring of inspiration for your own morbid, far-fetched tales of quaking terror and haunted mind-scapes? 

Cottam: Overall I think I have been much more inspired than influenced by other writers. I am quite often (and very flatteringly) compared to M.R. James, whose stories I love. I think that’s just because some of my novels are very English in character. That’s certainly true of The House of Lost Souls and The Waiting Room. My stuff is also sometimes called ‘Lovecraftian’, though I don’t think it is at all. I’ll concede the odd gothic tendency.

I like the short fiction of Ursula le Guin and Shirley Jackson. The first great horror story I read was Basil Copper’s Camera Obscura. I loved Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. I think Peter Straub, when he’s good, is pretty much peerless. Stephen King has written three or four novel length masterpieces and his short stories aren’t too shabby either. Recently, I’ve very much enjoyed Phil Rickman.

The writer who made me want to write fiction in the first place was Hemingway, when I read his story, Big, Two-hearted River; which perfectly embodies his iceberg theory concerning character. I’m not going to explain the iceberg theory to you, Strachan, but I can assure you it in no way involved the Titanic.
McQuade: Sorry, not remotely interested in any half-baked theories concerning the humble lettuce. So keep your Icebergs to yourself if you don't mind. I do however, thank you very much for your most entertaining and educational responses to my scalpel-sharp questions. Obviously we've no intention of ever paying you for your inconvenience but I'd like to present you with a pair of matching antique shrimping nets which I imagine will look very sporty when mounted on your scullery wall. Best of luck with your new novel and take care not to tread on that faulty floorboard on the way out. (Crash bang wallop) 

Cottam: Ouch!

McQuade: Ah, never mind, there's a first aid kit in the corridor. Let's see if being editor of a Men's Health magazine helps with splinting that broken nose. Right back to those darts. (Thock Thock Thock) Bingo!

If you want to hear more of FG Cottam then visit his blog page by clicking on the link below. It's completely Strachan McQuade free and you might pick up a few tips on how to have bigger arms.


You can also find FG Cottam's hair-raising new novel, The Colony, here on Amazon.





  1. Brilliant, the wooly hat and margarine bit sent me reeling. Starting off with "The House of Lost Souls".

  2. Think how I felt when I discovered McQuade put the margarine back in the fridge after using it for his sordid sexual practices.

  3. That rascal, Maybe McQuade was saving it for a tryst with Barbara Cartland.