Author Spotlight – Ashley Stokes (GIGANTIC)
Ashley Stokes is the author of Gigantic (Unsung Stories, 2021), The Syllabus of Errors (Unthank Books, 2013) and Voice (TLC Press, 2019), and editor of the Unthology series and The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings (Unthank Books, 2016). His recent short fiction includes Subtemple in Black Static; Hardrada in Tales from the Shadow Booth, Vol 4, edited by Dan Coxon; Evergreen in BFS Horizons 11; Two Drifters in Unsung Stories Online, and Black Lab in Storgy. Other stories have appeared in Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, the Warwick Review and more. He lives in the East of England where he’s a ghostwriter and ghost.
Welcome back to the Hive, Ashley. Let’s start with the basics: tell us a little about Gigantic!
Gigantic is a quest story. No one believes that for centuries the London Borough of Sutton has been the home of the North Surrey Gigantopithecus, a Bigfoot-Yeti-style cryptid, apart from Kevin Stubbs and his unsettling friend, Derek Funnel. When film of a new sighting turns up, Kevin, Derek and their arch-sceptic team leader Maxine go all out to get to the truth, settle the matter once and for all. There will be blood, and much shouting and arguing the toss as well.
Tell us about Kevin’s London – what inspired the world he lives in?
Sutton is a suburb straddling north Surrey and outer London that feels like it belongs in neither. It’s quite obscure. I often have to explain where it is. It’s an anti-Venice that never appears in stories. As such, it’s either a vast unexplored terrain (a strange thought when most of us live in under-fictionalised places like Sutton), or it’s an offputtingly dull locale to write about. For Kevin, though, it’s the centre of the world and everything that happens there is of world-historical importance. It’s where I grew up and I often think of it as quite a dark place full of dark stories and creepy secrets. The origin of Gigantic is that I was watching a documentary about Bigfoot hunters in America. The way they argued and their overall earnestness appealed to me. Then I thought, Why does this only happen in backwoods America? What if it happened in my home town? The next morning I made some sketches and notes. The character outlines and the lore came really easily. However, I initially thought the idea too weird and abandoned it. A bit later I found out that The Sun and The Daily Telegraph were reporting a Bigfoot sighting in Tunbridge Wells and realised I might be onto something.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? Do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing?
The characters in Gigantic fall into the categories of comic characters in a straight world, Kevin and Derek, and straight characters in a mad world that Kevin and Derek drag them into: Maxine and Bohoslava (Kevin’s estranged wife). I am drawn to introverts and superfluous men, and characters with vivid inner lives, mad obsessions, delusions of grandeur and a tendency to create their own language. Kevin was too much fun to write, really. He got well out of hand. He lives on the outer ring road for me. I don’t often get to take someone so far towards the edge of town. The characters I’ve written since are far less comic-infernal, more subdued.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
I usually enjoy the editing process and am quite organised about it. I also enjoy working with editors and reworking a piece. Even so, Gigantic has had the most torturous editorial history of anything I’ve ever written. It’s taken ten years from writing those first notes to the publication of the book. First of all it was a short story with footnotes, formally like my story A Short Story about a Short Film in my collection The Syllabus of Errors, and my forthcoming Fade to Black. It got too long, though, and went through novella and novel stages. The footnotes were removed and the text refashioned into a less tricksy form. Some of the material changed. The times changed too, so the very shouty and overbearing Kevin I conceived as a bit of a warning in 2011 was more problematic by 2016. I had to find ways to take him down a notch as well as emphasising further the role his quest to reunite with his son plays in the story. I am quite happy with how the novel reads now, and was grateful for the input of two editors in particular.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps?
I write for about three hours every morning five days a week (sometimes six). I do have quite an organised system. I write a journal to clear my thoughts and plan my day. I then read my tarot cards and post a painting to social media. If I am in the middle of something, I’ll read over and edit the story or chapter so far until I can’t make any changes, then write another 500 – 800 words. I usually have a point I am trying to hit. If I am not actually writing a story, I may freewrite from art postcards or poems, or if I am planning, I have a system that adds random elements to a broad outline. I have an extensive inventory of story ideas, long and short, and some I have been keeping notes on for years before I start them. I never listen to music while I am writing, apart from sometimes The Splendour of Fear by Felt.
You’ve written a number of short stories. How was the process this time round writing in a longer format?
Well, Gigantic began as a short story and its journey to noveldom (as I outline above) started when I found Kevin’s voice. Gigantic was such a strange idea that I don’t think I would have attempted it as a novel first off. With a short story, you have a bit more leeway to try eccentric things. I might have baulked at spending ten years on a novel about the quest to find a bigfoot-style cryptid in northern Surrey. I might not have had the courage to carry-through and put in the years. They are different forms, obviously, the short story and the novel. Flannery O’Connor famously said that writing a short story after writing a novel is like escaping the woods only to be devoured by the wolves. I do think you have to give yourself a bit of a break when you write a novel, let yourself explore the woods and forget about the wolves.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences?
I was engrossed in SF in my late childhood and early teens, in science fiction, epic fantasy and then horror. As a writer, I’ve come back to weird fiction only recently via many detours, but I do feel like I’ve come home. Influences for me would be 2000AD, Quatermass, Vonnegut, Kafka and Lovecraft among others. I’m also still quite intrigued with the late 70s obsession with paranormal activity, how as a kid you could look in your parents’ Daily Express and side by side with a report on the power cuts or Ted Heath being a traitor there would be an artist’s impression of a square-headed alien sighted in Reigate or Warminster as if these were events of comparative veracity. Kevin in some ways emerges from that subculture, too.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I’d take an opportunity to track the beast, follow its prints and droppings to the far side of the ring road and into the lush, undiscovered country there.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Shoggoth. Like a lot of things with me, no one has tried to do it before because it doesn’t really work.
Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?
The one I particularly love I’ve not actually read: The German Neanderthal’s Magic Horn by Gustav Meyrink. That title! It’s never been translated into English, so I can’t have read it, though in Gigantic, Derek Funnel somehow has because he spouts on about it. I can only imagine how good that book is.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I’ve been working on a short story sequence that I am hoping is a gateway to some sort of extended universe, or series of connected stories anyway. Some of the stories have already appeared, in Shadow Booth, Black Static and BFS Horizons among others, and a few more are slated to come out later this year. They are darker, weird-horror stories, and not comic at all. After writing Gigantic, I thought I’d try some straight horror and this proved really rewarding. So much imaginative space has opened up for me because of Gigantic.
Gigantic is out on the 2nd September. Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
There should be an event at Fantasycon in September, which will be the proper launch. Some other stuff is in the wings, so maybe follow me on Facebook or Twitter for news, @AshleyJStokes. On the day, I’ll probably, as the song says, drink to that and the passing time.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope I convince just a few people that it’s always been out there, hunched and hidden in the treeline, staring, scrutinising, alert and ancient, the missing part of us.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Gigantic is available from today from Unsung Stories. You can pick up a copy from: