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Inside the wit and work of Clive Barker

April 25, 2009 | 11:55 pm


Those who know Clive Barker primarily for his horror fiction might fear peering into the creative mind of this British author, director and visual artist,.

However, the Saturday afternoon chat with the closely shorn Barker at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, guided by LAT’s Gina McIntyre, was a lot like his popular and growing series of books “Abarat,” -- an inspired but ultimately unscripted collection of strokes of color and texture that, together, inform his storytelling.

Before he got to the Festival of Books for the panel discussion, he told the group, he had managed to eke out 15 handwritten pages as he finished up his fifth and final draft of the third in the "Abarat" series. Apparently, this particular book has been rather taxing -- the most difficult thing he’s ever written, he says.  “God knows what Book 5 will be like," he said. "I may go mad.”

When he came up with the basis for the books -- that “where is when” – he said it felt like “plugging into something that was so obvious -- and that was exciting.”

One of the challenges with this series, he said, is that speed is important to a younger audience. “You can’t linger for those delicious footnotes.” But he understands the impatience of youth. “As a kid, I didn’t like description … big gray paragraphs full of adjectives.” (McIntyre reminded him that his works do include many of those pesky adjectives.)

Young readers often ask him pointed questions about his books, which occasionally give him pause. Not because he has been so prolific that he’s forgotten the specifics of any one book. It’s primarily because he has likely written that scene or situation several times in his head or in a draft. “I always put in only a tiny proportion of what I’ve conceived.” Writing to him is a “process of very delicately selecting the one thing that is right from the 2,500 things that are almost right.”

Throughout the conversation, he spoke of his writing as a mystical blessing or gift. “I’m going to sound like Shirley MacLaine,” he joked. Writing for him has been more of a transcendent process. “It’s always been a sense there was a secret Barker solving things.”

An interesting twist is that Barker seemed intrigued by the notion that another writer might pick up where his final book in the “Abarat” series left off, constructing them from this “foundation on which you can build an endless series of mythologies.”

The conversation focused primarily on his writing in the fantasy genre. “Fantasy is a way to introduce ourselves to our own dream lives” and to the villainous side of our culture, Barker said. He pointed to examples of corporate greed in today’s society and how he would explore it. “What is the dream life of the corporate bastard like? Was that man ever a child – ever?”

The worlds in Barker’s novels are often multi-layered and complex. He defies the notions of black and white, good and bad as an oversimplification of reality. “All those dichotomies are phony, aren’t they?” he said.

“When writing for kids, it’s important to celebrate ambiguity,” he said, noting the shades of gray along moral, racial and sexual landscapes.

Two really cool insights we got at the FOB panel were a glimpse at one of his dream journals – replete with scribblings, scrawls and drawings that he later deciphers – and a breakdown of his work schedule.

He told us that if he weren't at the festival, his day would probably look like this:

8 a.m.: He’d be at his desk writing until about 6.

6 p.m.: Painting until 11

11 p.m.: Put the birds, dogs, fish – and himself – to bed

Bedtime: Keep the dream journal handy.

He also chooses to write everything longhand. “I’m a technophobe,” Barker said. “Things break when I get close to them…. So I feel as though my relationship with technological things is not good.”

Author and actress Jackie Collins also writes her manuscripts longhand. “Jackie Collins and I have many things in common,” he said. “So I said, 'What do you do to preserve them?' She said, ‘I put them in the freezer, darling.’ … I asked is it because they’re so hot? She said, no, because that’s the last place that will burn in a fire.”

The first question this technophobe was asked came from two representatives of the Reading Rights Coalition, imploring him to encourage Amazon not to turn off the text-to-audio function.

When asked by an audience member about how he overcomes creative block, he said as a practice he is a secretive worker. That way, “I can fail quietly on my own.”

A few things for fans to note: He’s going to be working on a TV series of “Night Breed” and wants to revisit it as a text. He also wants to put out a third “Book of the Art.” "The book is waiting in the wings.… I wish I could clone myself sometimes…. That book is huge and very important in me. It will never get lost in the shuffle,” he said, though it might be three or four years off.

Sooner than that, though, fans can look forward to a book he describes as a sub-library – a book of books, “Journeyman.” He plans to deliver the book to his publisher this summer and include poems he said he was earlier afraid to publish. These, he said, will delve into the erotic, dark and metaphysical with diversity being key.

He treated us all to a reading of one of the poems to be included in the book. (You can click here to hear Clive Barker reading.) This poem he said he wrote just in a draft in the middle of the night as prose, initially a scrawl of sleepy words.

He said he loved the idea of the title describing him as being more like a mason or woodworker being taught these disciplines. “I’m a 56-year-old man, and I feel I’m a long way from learning my craft.”

-- Michelle Maltais

Click here for more photos of the Book Festival.

Photo: Barker with his paintings. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times