Christmas products are in stores, carols are on the radio, and cafes are beginning to paint their windows with pagan figures like Santa. You know what that means? Well, it means that the retail industry is doing its best not to drown and face their horrible, but inevitable, death rattle by pushing Christmas shopping earlier and earlier. But it also means that I can get away with talking about one of my new favorite books, A Most Apocalyptic Christmas!
The Linford Christie Elf kept his voice down as we snuck away form the main building. He said “That man didn’t get his candy cane in time. I don’t have long myself. We must be quick.”
“You lot are torturing each other for not collecting sweets? Those are your trials?”
It was unreal. But it brought another thought to mind.
“You got a store of alcohol?”
This quote is from A Most Apocalyptic Christmas, a bleakly funny book by Phil Williams. I had the pleasure to talk with Phil recently about his book, the holiday, and about the seductive lure of the post-apocalypse genre.
My Interview with Phil Williams
Fitz: A Most Apocalyptic Christmas is told through the point of view of Scullion, a lone gun turned reluctant hero. He defers to nicknames for the other characters, never once taking a moment to ask them their actual names and thinks that life is cheap. To what extent do your characters resemble you as a person?
Phil: Oh that’s an excellent question that my wife would appreciate – she keeps complaining that I don’t use her actual name enough! Characters mistaking or inventing names is something that crops up all over my fiction, now you mention it. Must be something in it…
I think that no writer can avoid bringing themselves into any character they write – even if you base it on someone else, or some alien concept, it’s still your interpretation of such emotions and behaviour. Perhaps Scullion reflects some of my less responsible drinking days. But he’s a severe extreme – he’s cruder and more carefree than I could ever be – I care about things like responsibilities and consequences. But following him is an interesting test in exploring ‘what if’…
Fitz: The book is an absurd concept played straight, and honestly, is a lot of fun. It can be very grim and earnestly funny on the same page. Is this reflective of the comedies that you enjoy outside of your work?
Phil: Yes, I’d say so. I’m a big fan of bathos, and think absurdist or surprising humour work best in contrast. I grew up reading Pratchett’s Discworld, so you could probably see some antecedents there. He was a master at playing absurd humour straight – it works so well (to my mind) precisely because of how serious and stuffy a lot of his characters are. On the other hand, I don’t really get on with fiction that’s pure comedy. (And you could apply the same to TV/film – I’m a big fan of dark or surrealist humour played with a straight face.)
Fitz: We definitely share in that taste! You write about the post-apocalypse with a natural voice for it. In A Most Apocalyptic Christmas, you describe the gritty ruins of man with an almost raw poetry, what ultimately attracts you to the apocalypse?
Phil: Another good question! I guess I like the aesthetic of darker aspects of life, seldom-trodden paths and things that are left to ruin, they evoke a haunting kind of emotion. The apocalypse is also a perfect setting for exploring morality – without societal constraints, moral choices are much starker in apocalyptic fiction. To say nothing of the opportunity it gives us to be wildly creative with reconstruction – what strange things might rise from the ashes? What distorted realities will people cling on to? How far are we from making these crazy things happen?
Fitz: You sir, were absolutely wildly creative with reconstruction! You turn the themes of Christmas on its head in the book. A time of mirth becomes a grim and bleak affair. Are you jaded and disillusioned from the holiday or a true believer, or is there room for both?
Phil: What appeals to me about Christmas, and always has, is that it can serve as a shining light in the middle of the darkness, beyond logic and reason. People use it as an excuse to find hope, and forgiveness, and happiness, in spite of everything. It makes it great for stories because of the contrast it can create – similar to my answer about humour. In that vein, the best Christmas stories emerge from the darkest backdrops.
Outside fiction, I’m still a fan of the holiday, but commercialism sadly dilutes its effect. Christmas is hardly a shining light in the middle of darkest winter if you’ve been submitted to it since the sunny days of August. I read not long ago about a man who determined to celebrate Christmas every day of his life. I’m not sure if he’s still doing it, but you have to imagine it’s lost its charm.
Fitz: I can’t imagine that it hasn’t. What is your favorite part of being an author, and has there been anything about writing that has surprised you?
I love spending time with my characters, because they take on their own lives and they always surprise me. There’s times that I reread character dialogue and have no idea where it came from. I also love taking them to unusual places, particularly ones I’d never be able to experience myself.
In terms of doing it as a profession, the biggest realisation I had to come by was how much difference feedback makes. I’ve been writing all my life, and before self-publishing I would privately write and rewrite a novel 6 or 7 times aiming for perfection. Once I got an editor on board, I realised I could achieve more with one (knowledgeable) outsider’s perspective than I could with 5 years of my own private revisions.
Fitz: Why write a holiday-themed post-apocalypse novel and not, say, a commercial thriller? What would you say is the greatest challenge for an indie author not afraid to write something different?
Phil: I enjoy commercial thrillers as a reader, but as a writer I enjoy pushing myself to different, stranger vistas. One of the greatest thrills of writing is experiencing something in your mind that you can’t easily recreate in reality. I get to build weird settings and upset the laws of reality. For me, it feels like a wasted opportunity if I can’t create unusual new places at the same time that I’m creating a story. Not that I don’t also like relating things back to reality – if you take a look at my Ordshaw (contemporary fantasy) series, that’s set in the modern UK. But I invented a city, rather than relied on one we already have. (The first novel, Under Ordshaw, is available here).
As for the greatest challenge – people buy the familiar, and read the familiar. It’s easier, it’s a quicker path to happiness. Even if you end up reading weak imitations of something you love, you know what you’re getting. When you try something new, there’s no guarantee it’s worth your time. For an indie author writing something unusual, you really have to persuade people to take a chance. Which, now I say it, sounds like the hardest thing in the world.
Fitz: Will there be more of Scullion’s misadventures on the way?
There were two full length Scullion stories around long before AMAC, both yet to be released. I have a 5-book plan with the first novel already written (The Worst Survive), and the fourth (for complicated reasons!) already in screenplay format. The stories are less surreal than AMAC, but just as frenetic – charting the rise of a dystopian society through the eyes of this very irreverent mercenary. The series mixes some serious cyberpunk, noir detective and wasteland warrior vibes. It’s coming along, but only between my focus on the Ordshaw series. I’ve got another post-apocalyptic series to finish, too, the Estalia series which started years back with Wixon’s Day. That’s a much more serious, haunting kind of saga, which has got an explosive finale on the way.
I also always had in mind an idea to do a couple more Christmas stories for Scullion – seeing as he’s led a very interesting life. The second one would be an apocalyptic reimagining of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – A Christmas Parole. I’m reluctant to prioritise another Christmas novella when I’ve got more substantial novel projects to complete, though!