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Clive Barker and Collaborations

December 13th, 2008 1 comment

Earlier this week, I interviewed Clive Barker; the finished article will appear in a book titled Writer’s Workshop of Horror that will come out (I believe) next fall from Woodland Press. It will be a collection of articles and interviews by or with professionals in the horror or dark fiction industries. Some of the other folks involved are Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Monteleone, Mort Castle, Gary Braunbeck, Brian Keene, Tim Waggoner, Elizabeth Massie, Paula Guran, Scott Nicholson, Michael Laimo, and JG Gonzalez.

I had a really excellent chat with Clive … he’s an incredibly generous and gracious person. His assistant initially told me he’d only be able to talk for 20 minutes, but I ended up with over an hour of recordings.

Many of you have noticed that his voice had gotten steadily more hoarse and tortured-sounding over the past couple of years. Some have wondered on blogs and message boards about his overall health. His voice problems, it turns out, were caused by a cluster of noncancerous polyps growing in his throat. I hesitate to call them “benign” because in addition to wrecking his voice they were also starting to interfere with his ability to breathe.

The upshot is that Clive had surgery to remove the polyps — about two dozen in all — several weeks ago. He’s sounding much, much better, and says that he feels much better because he’s finally getting proper amounts of oxygen into his system.

Not all of what he talked about will make it into the final article, of course. Clive’s done a lot of interviews and I feel pleased I actually managed to ask him a couple of questions nobody had asked before.

One of the things we discussed was collaboration. Barker has collaborated with other creators on many film, theatre, and comics projects, but he says that he has no interest in co-writing stories or novels because he sees his own fiction projects as very personal endeavors.

I periodically see a writer — usually a beginner with few to no pro credits — declaring that he would never, ever collaborate with another writer because his style is “too unique”. Which to me sounds about as bragworthy as a singer declaring he never performs with an a capella group because his voice is “too unique” — in other words, he doesn’t have much dynamic range and probably can’t reliably find the key.

It’s one thing to know how to do something well and decide you’d rather not do it; it’s quite another to be proud to be unskilled. That makes me think of the stylishly raw punk bands in the late 70s who made one-chord-pony hay for a couple of years. But then the 80s came, and by the 90s most punks burned out or faded away. But there are a few old punks still performing to this day, and guess what? They learned to play their damn instruments.

There’s a collection of skills anyone who wants to call him- or herself a well-rounded writer should have, and being able to collaborate on projects is one of them. That whole “plays well with others” thing gets scoffed at a lot by authors who style themselves as lone wolves. The truth is, every pro writer has to make his or her editor happy, and if you don’t want to view that particular give-and-take as compromise, it helps to look at it as collaboration.

Editing aside, collaborating with another writer can be a lot of fun. When collaboration goes right, when you’re working with someone you respect and nobody’s ego is likely to get caught in their zipper, your different abilities enhance each other. You end up with a piece that’s fresh and uniquely stronger than if either of you had attempted to write it on your own.

I’ve co-written several stories and poems with Gary Braunbeck, and we have a pretty good system down. Our collaborations have often emerged when Gary’s been invited to a theme anthology but found himself unfamiliar with the subject matter (ironically, when he was initially invited to write for Doctor Who: Destinations Prague he’d never seen a single episode of the show. He’s a big fan of the good Doctor now, but that’s a topic for another post).

First, we’ll sit down and hash out a general story idea. Then, one of us will sit down and write a very rough initial draft. That will be passed to the other of us, who’ll go through the story and fill in the gaps and flesh out scenes. And then that draft will be passed back to the first person, and back and forth until we’re happy with the final story.

If you’ve done collaborations before, you may very well have a different co-writing technique. Some writers literally sit next to each other as they write the drafts; Gary says he wrote a story with Alan Clark in this fashion. The important thing is the finished story, so whatever works, works.

But if you haven’t collaborated before, I encourage you to give it a try. I think you’ll find it can be an enlightening and rewarding experience.