Tarn Richardson is a writer who doesn’t like to hang about. Having been awarded a three book publishing deal with Duckworth Overlook (they of World War Z zombie fame) for his World War One fantasy horror epic THE DARKEST HAND, he released the free prequel novella, THE HUNTED, and book 1, THE DAMNED, in 2015, book 2 THE FALLEN in 2016 and the final book, THE RISEN, in 2017. He has since written two more novels, been approached to write a horror book for young adults and is currently in discussions to co-write with one of the latest rising stars of the modern horror genre.
“There’s a passion that drives me,” he reveals, as we sit down to discuss his journey as an author to date and what his plans and aspirations are for the future. “It’s akin to a madness, this thing that drives me! The need to keep writing, to keep producing, it just wont let up! It’s exhausting but exhilarating too!”
Tarn is relaxed and easy company, quick with laughter and self-deprecating in his opinion of himself and his literary achievements. But there’s a zeal about him when we talk about writing, about novels which have influenced him and books he is writing or planning to write, his work clearly an obsession, a quiet steely confidence in how he views his future plans and belief in what he is trying to say in his work. As if he’s on a mission to tell the world what he believes, and there’s so little time left to complete it.
“I’m my own worst enemy, both in terms of how I go about writing, but also what I write about. Everything has to be difficult. Uncomfortable for me. It’s about how hard I can push myself, physically and mentally, once I get into a project. It’s as if I relish the pain of creating, that I need this masochism to write and feed off!”
Tarn certainly thinks big. His 400,000 word debut trilogy, THE DARKEST HAND, focused on the torment and horror of World War One and those caught up in it in micro detail, from battle wounds and psychological breakdown of people on the front line, to the role of royalty and religion in the campaign. He’s quick to point out that he wrote it to be more than simply another fantasy horror epic.
“It was my way of exploring control within our society, both then and now, control of others through wealth, class, power, religion, fear and sex. World War One is one of the worst blights on our history, a conflict created by society’s elite solely to test their empirical, industrial and military mights against their neighbours. And those who suffered were the poor sods sent to do the murderous work of their leaders; the poor, the downtrodden, those controlled by the hierarchy above them.
“I love to write characters with ‘issues’! Issues caused by people and events which have happened to them in the past. Everyone in the trilogy is flawed in someway, and these flaws are usually due to the negative impact someone above them has had on their lives; Sandrine Prideux by the strict boundaries of her society, Lieutenant Henry Frost by the authority of schooling and his commanding officers in the army, even the great Inquisitor Poldek Tacit is crippled by the religion that took him in and made him what he is.
Released to almost universal praise, and likened to the writing of Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien and Alan Moore, Tarn however has one big problem with the trilogy.
“It’s 100,000 words too short! There was more to say and more to do than I could shoehorn into the three books. I love well fleshed out characters, but a few along the way feel rather cardboard to me, and some of the action jumps around a little with holes in places. But in the time I had and the energy I possessed, it’s as good as I could do.”
I ask him if he’ll ever go back and bring out an expanded ‘director’s cut’ of the trilogy one day.
“No,” he replies firmly, and I again see the assurance he possesses over what he wants to write and where he wants to go with his writing. “You never can go back. You have to keep moving forward, looking ahead of you. THE DARKEST HAND trilogy is done. Finished. There’s other exciting places to visit now. Ideas to help me improve as a writer.”
Like many authors, the road Tarn took to becoming one was long. He first knew he wanted to be an author when he was read THE HOBBIT at school.
“I was eight and it blew me away, absolutely floored me. I can still remember the moment, just utterly mesmerised by Tolkien’s world and his writing. I’d never known anything so beautiful or lush or terrifying in my short life.
“Gary Gygax, Ian Livingstone, all that lot were just about to bring out role-playing games and adventure books and I gorged myself on them, writing adventures and stories for friends and myself, eventually expanding out to try writing my first novel when I was eighteen or nineteen.”
He laughs when I ask him about it.
“Oh, it was terrible! It was based on adventures I had written for my mates with whom I played D&D and just awful. But it was beginning. You need to start somewhere. And I loved doing it, the process of sitting down for hours and hours and just writing, losing yourself in it. I was hooked. I’d rather write than go out and have fun with mates. The obsession had begun! I always tell writers first starting out that you have to be obsessive about writing, want to do it all the time. Forego sleeping, food and friends in favour of writing. If you’d rather go out with mates than sit down with your manuscript, give up now. You wont make it. Writing, it’s all or nothing, at least it is for me.
“I went to art college, but attended very few of the lectures, just enough to keep a place on the course, filling my days writing on my old Amstrad computer! I wrote hundreds of thousands of words, total crap, awful awful stuff where nothing happened and descriptions went on for pages! My opening chapter to my first novel was 24,000 words long! But I loved it, totally besotted with the fact I was a writer – a bad one, but a writer nevertheless! When I got into the ‘real world’ with a first job, I would sit and fantasise about getting published, seeing my name on the spine of the book. Tarn’s my middle name and I decided back then, that’s the name I would publish under. It just took another twenty years or so for the dreams to become reality!”
A trip to the trenches in 2012 changed everything for him. On the trail of two great uncles who fought in the Great War, one of whom didn’t come back, the trip lit the spark that eventually fired the imagination and ideas for his trilogy.
“I tell every budding writer I meet, find that one thing that utterly moves and consumes you and write about it, whether it’s the injustice or the horror or the humour of it. It’s that passion that will drive your pen, deliver those words with emotion and sincerity and hopefully end up in a manuscript that is honest and true to yourself and what you want to say.”
I ask him if he got his manuscript right first time round courtesy of the moving experience in France?
“God, no! I sent the first manuscript to Ben Clark at London literary agency LAW, who would eventually end up being my agent, and he sent it back saying basically, ‘This is probably the most boring manuscript I have ever read! Nothing happens in it!’ However, what he did like was the concept, werewolves in the trenches, and he liked my writing style. He included with his rejection a page of notes and considerations as to what he would change, and that was all the impetus I needed to rewrite it and send it back to him. Another three months hard work later and we had something we both felt might just work!”
Whilst critical praise for THE DARKEST HAND trilogy has been glowing, from book reviewers, critics, readers and fellow authors, the books have not been the commercial success to date that the reviews suggest they should be. Horror maestros Tim Lebbon and David Moody are both fans of his work. Acclaimed book blogger Yvonne Bastian placed it ‘second to Lord of the Rings’ in terms of vision and merit. I can tell its lack of a wider audience is a frustration to Tarn, but one he’s learnt to accept it with a begrudging shrug.
“I think the problem is I’ve written books that are hard to categorise and describe to potential readers. Are they horror, fantasy, thrillers, historical fiction, love stories, detective stories, war stories? I think they’re all of that, and probably more. As a result, they’re hard to quickly define to people, hard to sell! I think we probably sold them wrong to begin with as well. I think selling them as ‘werewolves in the trenches’ sets off alarm bells in some people’s heads. They immediately think camp Hammer Horror. And whilst there are werewolves in the books, they’re very underplayed, subtle. I know of people who’ve read the books thinking they wouldn’t like them and been pleasantly surprised by what they discovered. How intelligent the book actually is.
“I get disillusioned sometimes, because I think I’m producing books that are well written books, beautiful and terrifying, full of big questions and considerations for people to ponder, but which can also be enjoyed on a superficial level too, if the reader wants. They are dark and lush and evoking of so many emotions. And then I look across and see some ghastly Lee Child rip off or some ‘He Said, She Said’ police procedure thriller being lauded in the press or in the Amazon charts and it does get me down. I find myself thinking, what do I need to do to be discovered? I keep reminding myself I need to stop looking around me, keep my eyes on my own work and channel my inner Tom Waits.”
I ask him what he means by this and he quotes Waits’ acceptance speech when the musician was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011, word for word.
“They say that I have no hits and I’m difficult to work with, and they say that like it’s a bad thing.”
After what I’ve heard from him and witnessed in his frustrations, I ask him if, as a result, he’s moving more towards the centre ground of fiction with his next work, a manuscript that I know he’s been working on for four years now and which is almost ready to go to his agent. He pulls a face and then chuckles, before putting his head into his hands, as if defeated or embarrassed by this inability it seems to conform or take the easier path.
“No, Gavin,” he says, shaking his head, “I’m going ever further outside mine and other people’s comfort zones! I’m writing something so bleak and big and dark that I don’t know where it’s come from or who will like it! It’s a nightmare! I’m a nightmare! But I know some people will love it. Some will hate it, really really hate it. But some people will take it to their hearts. I thought at the time when I first wrote it that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and I still think that. And, best of all, it terrifies me.”
I ask him how a manuscript that he’s written could terrify him.
“Because of the ground I cover within the novel, the places I visit, both physically and in my mind, the things I discovered about occult practices and about myself, the things that flowed out of my head and my pen. It was a thrilling experience writing the book. I never knew I had it in me, those ideas or the appetite to go there. I’m glad I did. I learnt a lot about myself.”
As he drains his third flat white of our chat, I consider what a complex character Tarn is. On one hand he’s chatty and light-hearted, as interested in me and the type of literature I like, enquiring about authors he’s not read or knows little about, as I am interested in him. He’s confident in his work, about what he writes and why he writes, but he’s self-depreciating and quick to say he’s merely scratching around the ink well of some of the more recognisable names in fiction. He’s also surprisingly poorly read in the horror genre. He’s not read Clive Barker, only a little Stephen King, never Lovecraft or Peter Straub, for example, doesn’t follow the latest horror trends. But of authors he has read and enjoyed, and he appears to read a lot, he waxes lyrical about why they are so good. Cormac McCarthy, Terry Hayes, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Tolkien, of course! He’s also, for all the smiles and generous admissions, closed on some topics, careful about just what he does reveal to me. It’s as if there’s a weight that he carries, as if there’s a shadow across him, something he’s not willing to reveal or open up about. A darkness within him.
“I don’t know why it’s there, this darkness, or where it comes from. Well, I have an idea, but only it comes out in my writing. I want to write happy light stuff, I do, but it just doesn’t happen. There’s sadness and loss in what I write, injustice and the search to put things right. In RIPPED, my latest book, it was just darkness that flowed from out of me, accompanied by occasional pinpricks of light.
RIPPED is his latest novel and I can tell how proud he is of it. It’s a duo-time police thriller about a modern-day Jack the Ripper killer on the loose in London. It might only just be seeing the light of day, but Tarn actually wrote it four years ago, returning to it now that his busy schedule on THE DARKEST HAND has come to an end.
“After THE DAMNED I was on a roll creatively and more attuned to the world around us. I’d travelled pretty far into paranormal and occult practices and connected ideas when writing it, heaven and hell, demons and grimoires, all that good stuff, and wanted to go further still. Into the abyss! I started looking into incantations to summon spirits, delving into some fairly dark art stuff, asking some of the bigger questions about who we are, what we’re made up of, why we’re here, where we’re going. Twinned with where I was as an ambitious writer with my first published novel under my belt, these bigger ideas just connected and flowed and the manuscript just came together easily. I wrote the first draft of it straight out, from start to finish in four months, no amends, no changes, no rewrites. It just happened, as if someone else was guiding my pen. That’s what it felt like. Totally exhilarating! A real literary high.
“And then I sent the manuscript to my agent in exactly the same unamended format. And he replied saying, ‘What the hell is this?!’”
Tarn laughs now about it, but he tells me he wasn’t laughing at the time.
“I was so consumed by it, I couldn’t see how he thought it needed any work! So I put it in a drawer and focused on writing the next two books in THE DARKEST HAND trilogy. When they were done, I could finally return back to RIPPED and find out why my agent was less enthusiastic about it than I was. And once I read through it I thought, ‘Oh my god, my agent was right! This is terrible!’ It was grammatically all over the places, and procedurally all wrong. So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work on it, pulling in a friend who worked for the MET police for twenty-five years to advise on police procedure and sorting out the frankly awful English within it. It had been written in a stream of consciousness and, frankly, was unintelligible in parts!”
He tells me he’s now almost done on the manuscript and the project.
“One more edit should do it and then my agent can sink his teeth into it properly.”
Is he worried about the reaction it’ll get this time?
“Of course! Every time! That concern never leaves you, whenever you produce anything and give it to someone to read. But all you can do is write something the best you can, give it everything you’ve got, polish it to the point where you go blind to it, and then hand it over to those who know better to take it on to the next level. But I’m immensely proud of it. It says everything I wanted it to say, carries the message I’ve been looking to bring across into my work and across to my readers since I first started writing. It’s not without its flaws and hard edges. Hopefully my agent and editor’ll knock those off.”
So, will this be the one to break you into the big time? I ask.
He purses his lips and looks into the space above me, thinking for a long while, before looking back. “I hope so, but I don’t know. It’s a complex book, perhaps too complex to find a mainstream audience. It’s not an easy read. It’s not intended to be. I’ve written it to be demanding of the reader and a real challenge in parts. But I have to be true to myself and the manuscript and what I want it and myself to say at this point in my career. I don’t want to sell out and write pulp fiction to shift units and mollify brains. RIPPED is the sort of book I’d like to read, drown myself in. I think that’s the best you can do.”
Whilst I admire Tarn for writing challenging work, you have a sense that he’s his own worse enemy, that he could make things easier for himself if he moved his writing towards more accessible and centre ground fiction. But I’m not convinced it would necessarily make him happier. I think he needs that challenge against which to set himself, to produce dark work and exorcise those demons he clearly carries. Whatever, he’s not resting on this laurels. He has a lot lined up, the young adult book he’s been asked to write, teaming up this other horror writer to co-write a novel, as well as his own projects.
“I’m currently researching Berlin at the end of the war for a new book, and really enjoying it. I love research, discovering real life stories. So often the truth is stranger than fiction!”
And this fellow author you’re co-writing with?
“I think it’s all a bit hush hush at the moment. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say. We met last year and got on really well. He’s a massive talent, a huge new voice in the horror genre, his debut lauded by the critics. He writes sparse cold urban horror, very contemporary and raw and I write more lush historical fiction. He wants to go back in time with the sequel to his first book and, after reading THE DAMNED and loving the rich historical backdrop, he got in touch. I was honoured. I think it’ll be a good match, even though I’ve never co-written a book with someone before. I don’t know how it’ll work but we’ll give it a go and see what turns up. It’s really exciting! I’m looking forward to it immensely.”
As we finish up, I ask him if co-writing will let some of the darkness out and more of the light in into his writing? He laughs. “Perhaps, but I have my doubts. This author I’m working with his, his work is even darker and harder than mine so I suspect the forecast is black for the foreseeable future!!”
On Monday, EXCLUSIVE to Kendall Reviews, you will have the opportunity to read the first two chapters of Tarn’s new novel RIPPED!
Thank you so much for this interview Tarn, and for turning my original idea on it’s head and into a post i’m incredibly proud to host here on Kendall Reviews.
You can find out more about Tarn via his official website www.tarnrichardson.co.uk/
Follow Tarn on Twitter @TarnRichardson
Tarn’s Amazon author page can be found here