Author Interview – Dave Jeffery
In the latest in my on-going series of interviews with authors I’ve featured here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I’ve been lucky enough to get some time with Dave Jeffery, author of the post-apocalyptic classics A Quiet Apocalypse and Cathedral, both published by Demain Publishing, and recently reviewed here on the blog. When he isn’t writing about the end of the world, Jeffery is also the author of the popular Young Adult Beatrice Beecham series from Crystal Lake Publishing; the creature-feature Frostbite series released by Severed Press; and a variety of horror-related short stories. He was kind enough to agree to answer some questions from me about his background and life experiences, and how those have influenced his writing and his goals as an author; the inspirations behind his different books, including the A Quiet Apocalypse series; how he manages to write in different genres; and what his plans are for the future.
Hi there Dave, and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer! Perhaps we could start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your background, and how you found yourself becoming an author?
Hi Adam, it’s a pleasure to be here and thank you for your incredible reviews of both A Quiet Apocalypse and Cathedral. In terms of background, I was brought up on a council housing estate in the Black Country (Whiteheath, just outside Oldbury) and spent much of my youth reading and drawing. Growing up there wasn’t a lot of money around and escapism was sought through creativity and books. I guess this helped feed and shape my desire to become a storyteller. Initially I thought that would be in the form of a comic book writer/illustrator as I was always fascinated by 2000AD and the short-lived Action comics and I was lucky enough to be offered an apprenticeship with DC Thompson at one point but turned it down. The reason for this was when I visited the head office in Dundee I observed the job was not the fantasised image I’d created of the life of a working illustrator. Do I regret that? Sometimes I did, back in the early days, but in the long term, no. Looking back, it was the right decision as I would not have been happy, and that would have affected the work.
I have spent the past 35 years working as a mental health professional in the NHS. I retired in 2020 to write full time but have written and released material through the traditional publishing route, working with a variety of small presses, and larger, international academic publishers such as Wiley. The experience of working in such a vibrant and challenging profession is that it gives you a whole platform for creative ideas. It also gives you an insight into how not to write about mental illness and the associated societal stigma that, sadly, comes along with it. I am a staunch advocate for mental health in the horror genre, and I do not mean just the mental wellbeing of writers, I mean how writers portray mental illness in the genre and their professional accountabilities to reducing and not perpetuating the stigmatisation of the mentally ill.
The nature of juggling work, raising a family and being creative has meant that projects have tended to take a while to come to fruition. A novella (anything under 39,000 words) could take up to six months to get to a first draft. Novels, such as the Beatrice Beecham books took about 18 months to get to a final draft. Plus, there is the commitment to getting the words down in the first place. For a while (I did a first degree and an MSc while maintaining a full-time job) I tried to stop being creative and found that I became emotionally intolerable. Writing is part of who I am. I’m a better person when I have it in my life.
When you started to write, were there any particular authors and settings that inspired you; and perhaps still do?
I started writing very early (I’d written a novella called The Box and a novel called Badlands by my early teens – neither of them any good), influenced initially by the pulp horror stories of Guy N Smith and the more accepted, yet equally brutal, narratives of James Herbert. Growing up in the seventies was an incredible time for horror fans, especially from a literary standpoint. However, I didn’t get into the likes of Stephen King, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell until my mid-teens, when I began to appreciate the writing and crafting of a narrative rather than the content. My English teacher was always encouraging me to write, but suggested that I broaden my reading, and introduced me to Steinbeck’s works Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath. Reading Steinbeck unlocked something within me, the narrative flow and his characterisation are so sublime, I was captivated and remain so to this day. Cannery Row is my all-time favourite novel in any genre.
You write primarily within the Horror genre, moving between different subgenres like post-apocalyptic, creature feature and the supernatural. What attracted you to Horror as a genre in the first place? And what keeps you around in the genre?
My dad was a huge fan of the genre and I grew up watching and reading horror, sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve mentioned my go-to horror writers, but for sci-fi I was heavily into Harry Harrison (Make Room! Make Room! The Stainless Steel Rat), Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land) and Frank Herbert (Dune). My fantasy reading in my youth was limited to Tolkien, but over the years I have read plenty of Terry Pratchett, David Eddings and George RR Martin.
One of the exciting things about horror is that it has so many levels. I tend to write what I would call ‘horrific’ fiction, that is stories that have horrible events happening to normal people. That way you can get more out of it as a writer, and certainly as a reader, given that the narratives are character driven and protagonists, identifiable. I’m not a fan of blood and gore for the sake of a cheap shock. Personally, I think that’s a lazy way of getting a scare. For me, these things are more effective when hinted at or, in the case of Cathedral for example, they are presented in such a matter-of-fact way they leave the reader struggling to comprehend the mindset of those characters who accept such heinous actions in order to survive.
Turning first to your post-apocalyptic fiction: when you first started to write A Quiet Apocalypse, did you begin with the idea of making it a series of titles, or did it perhaps start as a one-off novella? And did you read any post-apocalyptic literature before you started writing – or while you were in the process of writing?
To be honest, my initial draft was for a commissioned short story for an anthology that never happened. At that point the story was about 8k words and pretty much fleshed out the journey of hearing protagonist Chris and his deafened persecutor Crowley, and Chris’ eventual escape from slavery. This edition didn’t feature the city of Cathedral, nor did it say much about the Samaritans, though they did have a very brief scene. This draft was eventually lost during a Windows 10 upgrade but by this point I was already thinking that it needed to be a longer piece, so this setback just meant I had opportunity to revisit the story and introduce the concept of the city of Cathedral and give more depth to the Samaritans.
I’m a huge fan of quality post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. A Quiet Apocalypse is a dystopian story at heart, made more obvious, I guess, by the release of Cathedral. The influences of the likes of Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is plain to see in A Quiet Apocalypse. I did not revisit these classic tales until I began to develop Cathedral, and given the book’s dystopic nature, I reread Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, mainly to gain insight as to the complex nature of dystopic society and how they function. It was during these rereads that I established Maslow’s Law as a societal construct for Cathedral. The whole thing clicked from that point on.
A Quiet Apocalypse and Cathedral are both incredibly evocative novellas set within a post-apocalyptic world that you’ve obviously spent a great deal of time developing and thinking about – how did you go about creating that world? And what made you decide to focus on a single location and its surrounding area – Cathedral – rather than the more open-world narrative often seen in the modern post-apocalyptic genre?
The idea for the central conceit, that of a viral strain of meningitis that kills most of the world and leaves what few survivors there are permanently deaf, came to me in the late 90s when I was working as a regional mental health nurse working exclusively with the Deaf community. During that time, I was fluent in British Sign Language (BSL) and was immersed in Deaf culture. A hearing person said to me that they would be terrified of being deaf. As this was a contradiction to the Deaf community who, through their language, consider being Deaf as a central tenet to their sense of cultural identity, this got me thinking. I felt that as a scenario it was pretty unique and sat on it for many years before making the decision to develop it further. The rationale for this was I wanted to avoid the post-apocalyptic cliches, where it’s all preppers and bunkers and guns, guns, guns. I wanted the story to be nuanced and human and very, very real.
To this end, I knew that the first-person narrative would serve to isolate the protagonist, and in doing so, the reader would be able to get a feel for the alienation our central characters must endure. Some suggest this is a mere plot device, but I’m less cynical in that I intended for this to develop the way it has and feel the approach is justified when I hear feedback from most people puts the first-person narrative as a factor as to why they have found the books so harrowing. However, I accept this style isn’t for everyone, and some prefer a more direct, matter-of-fact style of storytelling; it was just not what I wanted for this particular series. Interestingly, an offshoot writing in this way gave me the kind of creative freedom that is often constrained in post-apocalyptic fiction in that a writer is often faced with providing huge chunks of exposition as to how the world developed, and as a result there is a forced sense of chronology. A Quiet Apocalypse as a series can be read as standalone books or considered as running in parallel, and the reader gets a worldview that is myopic based on the protagonist of each book. The reader only knows what the protagonist knows or has experienced, or through what they have been told by others. This reflects real life, and decisions we make as readers as to what has or has not happened, are ours to make. I personally think this is a fascinating way to enter into and maintain a story.
The nuances of the society that operates out of Cathedral took some time to develop, mainly because I wanted the city to grow from the chaos of world’s end in a way that is believable. To aid this I wanted to look at frameworks that were already in existence that could be, if there was a determined will, subtly changed to suit the needs of those in charge of this new world order. As a mental health professional, I had significant awareness of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and realised this could be the very mechanism I could use to underpin societal control.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who created a theoretical framework based on chronologically meeting human need. At the bottom of a five-tier pyramid is physiological needs such as food, water, warmth etc, and at the apex is the concept of self-actualisation, or the ability for an individual to achieve their full potential. In order to progress, Maslow theorised that a person must have each need met in his proposed hierarchy.
Of course, for the purposes of Cathedral’s version (or Maslow’s Law as it is known in the city), the top two tiers that foster individuality are removed for the betterment of the whole community. The resulting trapezium shape this creates is a symbol of order in Cathedral and features on the city flag, and the doorways of the arboretum are fashioned in such a shape as a reminder to all that they are always under the influence of its doctrine. This removal of individual achievement ultimately creates an intriguing conflict between protagonist and the world they inhabit. As I began to shape Maslow’s Law, the whole thing seemed so right, I felt I had hit on something that had a basis in reality yet could be tested (or twisted) by my fictitious world.
Moving onto your other works, I can’t imagine two more different series, in terms of tone, style and genre, than A Quiet Apocalypse and Beatrice Beecham, and yet you’re the author of both! How do you manage to move between the bleakness of the post-apocalypse, and the lighter tone of Beatrice’s adventures?
Sometimes it pays to have multiple projects on the go at any one time, and this is one of those times. Ordinarily, the multi-project approach is my way of ensuring that I never get bogged down in any one piece, and it also allows me to step away and return later, without feeling that I have neglected my writing schedule in the interim. For Beatrice Beecham, I have been writing in that world since 2007 and I love my visits to the town of Dorsal Finn and its madcap inhabitants. I guess what makes it easy is the emotional connection I have with the series, I feel at ease when I am writing them, the setting is like my second home and I often call Beatrice my second daughter, she’s been such a huge part of my life in the past 22 years. After the grim and hostile world of A Quiet Apocalypse, a trip to Dorsal Finn is like going to going on holiday, albeit an adventure/mystery kind of holiday!
It certainly seems like the Beatrice Beecham titles are your most popular and well-reviewed titles – what do you think is drawing in readers to the series? Is it perhaps the fact that this is a Young Adult-focused series? Or is there something else to it than just that?
Personally, I think it’s the sense of nostalgia associated with the town. The language people use is very dated, some suggest that this detrimental to Beatrice’s relevance to a modern teen audience, and I have to accept that to some degree. My pushback on this is that the language used in Dorsal Finn is part of the town’s quirk, but I plan to illustrate this to a greater extent in the next novel, The Devil Device (Crossroad Press). The advent of TV shows like Stranger Things demonstrates there is an appetite for quality supernatural adventure stories and I’m hoping that one day, Beatrice and her friends get greater exposure out in the world.
You’ve also authored some fun, fast-paced creature-feature stories such as the Frostbite series, and Tooth & Claw, featuring mythical and cryptozoological creatures like werewolves and yetis amongst others. The creature-feature subgenre seems to be booming at the moment, with a number of titles coming out – what do you think has caused that resurgence? And why did you decide to write those stories?
Publishers such as Severed Press have been at the forefront of creature feature literature for many years now, and the demand for this kind of story I can only put down for people’s need for pure escapism. When you pick up a story about a rampaging, man-eating crocodile or a fantastic beast from folklore, you’re signing up to be entertained, and taken away from the day-to-day. I think that it is this tenet that draws people to this kind of genre, and it is worlds apart from the philosophical, atmospheric reads of what is termed ‘literary horror’. Another factor is that the pulp nature of these kind of books means that they are quick reads – usually novella length – and with time being so precious to people, they are the perfect tonic for a break time where you can get in a few chapters, or a read before bed. New publishers, such as Screaming Banshee Press, have taken this a step further by producing creature feature dedicated anthologies, for example Aberrations, that are crammed with short stories featuring a host of different creatures in search of human blood!
For writers, who pretty much always escape into the stories they are creating at the time, there is a freedom associated with writing outlandish tales where the gloves are off in terms of suspension of belief. Or, at least, that is how I saw it when I decided to write Frostbite (Severed Press) and Tooth & Claw (Grinning Skull Press), although the latter is more constrained in terms of story narrative. In both instances, I had always wanted to write stories that featured these incredible creatures. What usually happens is I think about the creature I want to write about and then what has been done before. Then I avoid doing that by introducing something outlandish. In Frostbite, the yetis are not savage creatures, they are intelligent and have their own culture. They have also been decimated by a clandestine group of alien invaders hiding beneath the Himalayan mountains. For Tooth & Claw, it had to be more than just a werewolf roaming the night killing people or trying to figure out who the werewolf is like some well-worn whodunit. Better to have an off-the-grid, exclusive hunt where the cream of the hunting community can bag themselves a werewolf for an exorbitant admission fee, and a covert cop trying to bring it all down. That is how I get around the malaise in the genre. The key for me is to be patient. Yes, decide you want to write a story, but don’t be confined by what has been done before, mix it up. Sometimes people hate what you’ve done, but most times they’ll enjoy it for what you set out to do – write something different.
Many of your titles are parts of on-going series. How do you keep up the momentum within each series, and keep the reader’s interest? Is it a different and unique process for each series – or are there common factors that you can make use of to keep things moving along?
Some books develop as you’re writing them. Frostbite, for example, could easily have been a standalone book, but as the story went on, I got the sense that the core construct was becoming bigger, and ideas of how to expand the universe began, tapping especially into the science fiction elements. I now have story arcs for a third (Frostbite3: Earthfall) and a spin-off series in development that I’m pretty excited about. The Beatrice books have always had a story arc that sees the protagonist going on a journey of self-discovery and ultimately becoming something incredible along the way. As for A Quiet Apocalypse, there was a need from readers to know what was going on beyond Chris and his world view, and Cathedral is a way to address that aspect. Although these stories are all very different, they have parity in that as I was writing them, there was always more to say, be that in the narrative, the characters or the needs of the reader. There will come a time when these stories are finished, but that is still some time off, as things still need to be said.
Turning now to some more general questions, I know every author is unique in terms of their writing process, but I’m curious – how do you write best? Are you one of those authors who go to a coffee shop and sit with a laptop typing away; or are you perhaps more for quiet spaces and solitude? And do you listen to anything while writing?
When I retired in February last year, I made sure I gave myself a daily writing schedule and this has been the case throughout. What has changed is the medium I write in. At first it was on the laptop, I wrote Frostbite 2: Labyrinth, Cathedral and The Samaritan this way. Recently, however, I have returned to my old approach of writing in ‘notes’ on my phone and transferring the files to my laptop via email. This means that I can pretty much write anywhere, the car, the park and, yes, even that coffee shop, but in general I like peace and quiet when I write, I can’t listen to music because I get distracted by a great riff or heart-breaking vocal.
Would you say that you’ve found your writing style changing as you’ve written more and more fiction, and moved between short fiction to novels and entire series?
I have made a conscious effort to improve my approach to writing over the years and I personally feel my work overall has seen some benefits from it. The true test is always the feedback I get from readers and this does seem to bear out this belief. I genuinely feel that even five years ago, I would not have been able to fully articulate the themes and constructs, the nuances if you will, of A Quiet Apocalypse. Coupled with this is reading and rereading high quality fiction. In the past few years, I have revisited the works of Bradbury, McCarthy, Shelly, Jackson and Matheson, while still finding brilliant ‘new’ writers such as Chris Kelso. Reading is such an important part of honing your craft, I struggle to understand, and in truth have never seen it borne out in the work of such people, those who say they are writers but never read. Personally, I think such a mindset is at best folly and at worse a type of ignorance as to what it takes to write something worthwhile.
Apart from Horror, are there any other genres that you’d like to explore and write in, that you haven’t ventured into yet? Anything that takes your fancy – but perhaps isn’t commercially/financially viable, or you haven’t had the time to focus on as yet?
I have written in contemporary mental heath fiction. My first novel Finding Jericho was written in 2005 and has recently been rereleased through Demain Publishing. I intend to revisit the concepts of mental health in another contemporary novel with a working title of Taboo. I envisage this will be written in a few years’ time as I’m still ironing out the plot. The subject matter is quite sensitive, and I want to get it right and be respectful of the core themes.
And finally – what’s next for you in the writing and publishing world? Having just released Cathedral, are you returning to that world in the near-future? Or perhaps another existing series, like Frostbite or Beatrice Beecham?
I may have mentioned these in the main body of the interview, but to recap, I have finished the third book in A Quiet Apocalypse series. It is called The Samaritan and, once again, we have the perspective of life outside the walls of Cathedral from a first-person point of view.
This book is currently with my publisher and awaiting a release date. I’m currently working on The Devil Device, the sixth book in the Beatrice Beecham series, as well as Hymns for Dead Stars, a sci-fi folk horror hybrid, again for Demain Publishing. As for Frostbite and Tooth & Claw, after publisher discussions I can confirm that both will be having more books added to the roster over the next few years, so plenty to keep me and the fans busy for sure.
You can find out more about Dave Jeffery’s’s work at his personal website, his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter at @davebjeffery, and if you’re interested in any of his works, they can be found via his Amazon UK page