Book - Interview: David Shakes

David Shakes took time to talk to Steve Taylor-Bryant about learning and literacy, Flash Dogs and The Infernal Clock...

I was going to write something pithy or clever, I always get nervous communicating with educators, but as the interview about The Infernal Clock with its co-curator David Shakes happened, everything I would have wanted to add came up in some very passionate answers. So I'll let the interview do what it should, the talking...

Before we get into the crux of the interview and discuss the wonderful book ‘The Infernal Clock’, let’s get to know you better. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you become interested in writing?

My online name is David Shakes and I dabble in writing, photography and art. In real life, I’m a primary school headteacher. I was born in the seventies, so I’m a true child of the eighties – raised on Stephen King, VHS, Sega, comics and mix-tapes.

I’ve been writing since school. I studied English literature as part of my teaching degree and a large part of my working life has been spent trying to develop literacy in children. All those things I consumed in my formative years have contributed to what and how I write and where my current interests lie.

I was born on The Wirral and lived in the Northwest until the turn of the century when I moved to the West Midlands. Birmingham is now my adoptive city where I live with my wife, two children and two dogs.

As the son of a teacher I am more than aware that the job doesn’t stop when the bell goes, we lost many days and weeks of holidays whilst my mum prepared displays and lesson plans. Where do you find the time to write and create, get involved in projects, and how do you strike that balance of work/life?

Considering I am almost in my fifth year of ‘project Shakes’, I thought I’d be a little further on to be honest – I don’t have a single piece of fiction longer than 5000 words. Flash fiction has and will continue to be both an inspiration and an outlet for me. You can plan and develop something on the hoof and then write it quite quickly when time allows. More on that later.

Twitter is my greatest tool and biggest vice. I know I am on it way too much. I try to tell Mrs Shakes there are worse addictions – I don’t think I’ve convinced her, she just acquiesces these days.

The time some may spend going to football or playing golf or whatever, I dedicate to social media and creative stuff. Because of Twitter I have developed some great relationships and partnerships in my creative ventures – those people take on a lot of the pressures, like my co-curator on ‘The Infernal Clock’, Stephanie Ellis.

As for work / life balance? That grail has proved elusive so far and I never feel like I’m doing as well as I should in either camp.

What was the first book you remember having an impact on you in some way? Mine actually came from a teacher when I joined a comprehensive school half way through the GCSE year. She gave me a copy of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

My mum would read to us (my brother and me) when we were younger, so there are books that must have shaped me lost in the mists of middle-aged memory. I do remember reading a Readers’ Digest Book of the Unexplained until the covers fell off. I still love folklore and Forteana.

A primary school teacher, Mr Gaskin, read my class ‘The Hobbit’. He’d called his dog Bilbo, so it was clearly a book he loved and, as he read, that passion and joy was transferred to me.

Not only did he kindle a lifelong love of reading in me, he’s one of the key reasons I work in education today. Interestingly, I don’t really like Tolkien that much these days so that says a lot for the quality of the man as an educator.

The books that really shaped me came just after ‘The Hobbit.’ There were a group of kids on my street of a similar age and we’d play out late and hang out in each other’s houses. The father of two of the kids was reading David Morrell’s ‘First Blood’ and said he’d lend it to me after he’d finished. I told him I liked ‘The Hobbit’ so he found me two books to borrow whilst he finished ‘First Blood’. The first was a fantasy novel with a lurid cover. I can’t remember the title, but it was about some warrior queen and filled with outlandishly titillating scenes. The other was Stephen King’s ‘Carrie.’ By the end of 1985 I’d read everything Stephen King has mainstream published in the UK and I’ve been one of his stereotypical ‘constant readers’ ever since.

What book do you wish you had been involved with?

One of the books off my Stephen King catch-up list was ‘The Talisman’ which he wrote with Peter Straub. Because it’s an archetypal ‘journey and prize’ story with dark fantasy at its core and was almost 700 pages long, I invested a lot of time and effort in it. To say I loved that book when I was younger is an understatement. I remember getting a detention for reading it in class and then reading it in the detention – the teacher on duty laughed warmly when she asked what I was reading and then what I’d been in trouble for!

Fast forward to the new millennium and news comes out that King and Straub are writing a sequel of sorts. ‘Black House’ isn’t a bad book per se, and were I not expecting a better return to ‘The Territories’ I’d probably like it more – it just didn’t deliver what my expectant inner early-teenager was looking for.

I’d like to have had King and Straub run a few things by me – act as a technical consultant if you like. It may not have produced a better book for anyone else but me, but there you go. King entered belated sequel territory again more recently with ‘Dr Sleep’ but I really enjoyed that – so I can’t tell you what it was that was missing from ‘Black House’ – just that something was.

Obviously, your main profession is one that is responsible for children and young adults becoming aware of literature. How much do you feel that responsibility personally and are there any books or authors that you wish the curriculum allowed you to teach more?

As a headteacher and committed educator, I feel deeply responsible for the levels of illiteracy in Britain in the 21st Century. What the hell is going on?! This is my third school as headteacher, and I have deliberately moved to an area of high deprivation and low aspiration in order to try and make a difference. Sadly, current education policy and constant meddling from both ends of the political spectrum have made it a struggle that even Sisyphus would weep at.

When I was a class teacher, I was constantly trying to balance the need to teach the mechanics of reading and writing without killing the joy of them. It’s tough! My own grammar, punctuation and spelling is weak because when I was being educated, the emphasis was on creativity. Now, a never-ending focus on testing is killing the joy of reading for many children before they’ve ever had a chance to experience the epiphany I did.

It’s easy for governments to blame schools and for schools to blame parents – but parents DO and MUST play a part in their child’s education. Both my kids are voracious readers – we didn’t push them, we just gave them a good diet when they were younger.

We need to protect our libraries. Print books (like vinyl) had a huge resurgence last year, not least in the field of children’s literature – so there’s hope, but I am all too aware that we’re competing against digital distractions and a disinterest from a growing proportion of the population.

The irony is that, at primary level at least, we’ve never had such a golden opportunity to teach really high quality texts – it’s how we use them that makes the difference. If you follow my Twitter, check out Miss Merrill who’s recent Frankenstein work with 10 & 11 year olds in inner city Manchester is nothing short of inspirational. Tim Roach is another amazing advocate for modern literacy and he actually uses Stephen King in his primary school teaching – how cool is that?!

To your own projects now. How did the Flashdogs come about?

Rewind to 2013 and my first headship had hit a wall. I’d just turned 40 and was questioning what I’d achieved compared to the dreams I’d had as a kid. I was new to Twitter and had discovered Flash Fiction as a medium for creative writing. James Herbert (another horror hero from my youth) had just died and I decided I needed to scratch the writing itch I’d always had. I soon began entering weekly flash fiction competitions such as the late, lamented Flash Friday, 99 fiction and The Angry Hourglass (which is thankfully still around).

There’s a strong community feel in flash fiction – you’re putting your work out there for others to critique on a regular basis, but there’s camaraderie and a genuine willingness to help one another improve that’s rare in this day and age.

One golden weekend, through a quirk of fate and synchronicity, every flash prompt seemed to involve a dog in some way. Regular writers joked around on social media, the term ‘FlashDogs’ was born and an anthology became the logical conclusion not long after.

The conditions for membership were simple – write, encourage others in their writing and be an active member of the community. In the early days it felt ace to simply reply to the question ‘How do I join?’ with ‘Congratulations, you’re in!’ The Friday that #FlashDog was trending was a proud moment for me.

The FlashDogs’ first anthology was very much a forerunner for ‘The Infernal Clock’ in terms of my involvement. I had the bright idea and set the initial ground rules (there’s still an old blog around somewhere) but I needed other people to help drive the thing and do all the hard work. There are roughly half a dozen people at the core of FDHQ but the real linchpin is Mark A. King, who to this day keeps breathing life into FlashDogs – I’ve never met such a selfless bloke. It’s really his baby now. I DO hope to part of its next incarnation as a quarterly magazine though.

There are four FlashDogs books and I am pleased to have have work feature in all of them. When ‘Time’ came out I had a lot on in my work life and I’d pretty much wished them well and bowed out. The theme for the collection was past, present and future. The future section is dedicated to me. I cried when I found out – big, fat, manly tears though! Even then, they persuaded me to write something and allowed me to squeeze it in last minute.

What are the benefits for both author and audience in flash fiction?

The immediate benefit is brevity – for both author and audience. The best flash packs a punch, like a shot of fine whisky – you may down it and get a hint of the deep flavours or savour it and let all its complexities wash over you. Its effects are more immediate too. The best flash elicits a response or an emotion in a very short space of time. It is the essence of ‘show, don’t tell.’ – it often has a twist but doesn’t have to. Where it’s ambiguous, it demands more from you as a reader.

It’s very demanding for a writer to complete a successful flash too. It’s a discipline I know for a fact more established authors have struggled to have success in when entering under pseudonyms. The direct benefit for me has always been time – I can practise the art in the gaps between real life stuff. A good place to start would be a website called Paragraph Planet. Their 75 word limit really tests your mettle but time after time the featured pieces are amazing. They’ve rejected me more than they’ve featured me, so I am extra-proud when I get something published on there.

I remember you first building ‘The Infernal Clock’ project on social media. How important is social media in publishing nowadays, why did you put this project together in such a public environment and how did you choose the collaborators from the entries you received?

As I’ve said elsewhere in interviews, it’s a saturated market these days, and when you’re self-publishing or a small press, you’ve got to get your stuff noticed. Without my slightly larger than average Twitter following I wouldn’t have gathered the writers, or had the potential initial audience to ever move it beyond your average vanity project.

One of my other interests / vices hitherto unmentioned is beer. When I floated ‘The Infernal Clock’ idea, I’m pretty sure I’d had more than a couple of beers. However, as I am prone to procrastination, being so public acted as a motivational and organisational incentive for me too. Last year I was extremely public about my weight loss plans and progress for the same reason – not an ego trip, just the external pressure as motivation.

Because ‘The Infernal Clock’ was such an impulsive thing, I didn’t choose collaborators at all – if you were following my tweets that day and wanted in, you were in! People I’d have chosen didn’t make it and people I didn’t know too well got a slot! It felt edgy and experimental though – so that was good, right up until it all started to unravel a little bit. Luckily, I had friends I could count on. Although I missed my Halloween deadline for publishing, I am glad we got such a good final product together.

For those that don’t know, explain the concept behind the book and how you got such a high calibre of writers involved.

The idea came about when I was musing on Twitter. I was recalling the best of the anthology shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Tales from the Darkside’. We were talking about how we’d pitch a new genre show to execs and I said that I’d like to see a horror themed ‘24’ style show – real time. That then seemed to be a great idea for a book – 24 stories in 24 hours – each taking place in ‘real-time’. '24 Hours in Hell' was the original strapline.

That seemed to strike a chord, so when I asked for interest, the project was ready to go within an hour.

As to the calibre of writers, I guess I am lucky to follow and be followed by some truly creative people. I gambled that if you were going to offer to write for a book, then you’d at least feel you had something to offer as a writer! I also knew that people I admire and envy would produce something on the sheer strength a tweet – it’s how we roll!

A huge and delightful surprise was the offer from David Southwell to contribute a story. When I first started writing he’d agreed to an impromptu drink when I was in London and given me much encouragement over a few pints in The Nag’s Head in Walthamstow.

There are a lot of FlashDogs in the book, leading people to mistakenly believe it’s a FlashDogs gig – but then my favourite FlashDogs have always written dark stories.

And why pick a horror theme?

The second FlashDogs anthology needed a theme, and Mark A. King came up with the idea of SOLSTICE. Because we are a global collective, it meant that both Summer and Winter Solstices could be covered at once. It was split into two volumes – LIGHT and DARK, with mirrored covers. I always preferred DARK to LIGHT and wanted to push for a Halloween anthology next.

As I revealed earlier, horror has always been my genre of choice – it permeates my book, film and musical choices.

Because TIME came next and my writing was in a lull, ‘The Infernal Clock’ was my attempt to fulfil the ambition for a horror anthology. It’s actually quite an eclectic book beyond the binding concept – a range of styles and themes are covered.

Were there any “rules” that had to be followed by the writers, other than the horror theme and the allotted hour?

No – and that’s its ultimate strength I feel – it’s not formulaic and often feels quite literary. I think I’d said between 2k and 5k words initially, but eventually let that slip so writers of flash could be accommodated more readily. Beyond that – hell and the Devil or his minions had to feature or be implied.

The quotes at the start of each story are incredibly well chosen to fit the writing. Who came up with the idea to do this and did the writers choose their own or were they collated separately by an individual?

That’s all down to my co-curator and favourite horror writer Stephanie Ellis. I’d moved to my latest job and the process of wrapping up one school and planning to take over the next was all-consuming. She’d stepped in to manage the stories and pulled them together into a master document. Although their diversity is a strength, they really needed pulling back towards the concept and the theme. That’s where Steph’s work really excelled – she’s wonderfully well read.

Not asking you to pick a favourite story, obviously, but were there any entries that surprised or intrigued you more than others?

Tim Kimber’s 5am tale ‘Tartarus’ stands out because he was a complete unknown. The original writer dropped out quite late on and Carol R. Smith who was also a relatively new writer to me (4am – ‘Devil of a Job’) hooked us up. He’d not been published before but his excellent story is doing well in the reviews and I know he’s a novel ready to go.

Emily June Street (2am ‘Karen’s Babies) also surprised me. She’s a brilliant writer as well as book designer but rarely writes anything so dark. It was a hard-hitting tale and at one point she was going to have a credit under a pseudonym, because it disturbed her too!

It can take a long time to digest Sean Fraser’s 1am ‘Infernal Clock’ because it’s so deep and rich and, as a fan of James Knight, I knew I’d like his Midday ‘White’ but wondered what others would make of its experimental approach – but again readers have responded well to these pieces – I’d like to think we’re broadening horizons and showcasing what the genre can offer.

I assume, being horror based, the night time hours were easier to fill than the daytime hours – what was the most difficult/last hour to get picked?

Well, it was 2am, 5am, 8am and 10am that we eventually had to backfill, but I think it was late afternoon that originally was last to go – however we filled all 24 hours in less than a real hour and if you read the author interviews on The Infernal Blog, you’ll see that lots of writers opted for the less obvious hours deliberately.

And what hour would you have chosen for a story of your own?

Like some of the other writers have said in their interviews at The Infernal Clock, I’d choose an unassuming hour – early morning or mid-afternoon. It would be more open to interpretation. Demons by Daylight as the amazing Ramsey Campbell once wrote.

Is this a concept you’d like to revisit in the future? I can see there would be scope for a sequel or two…

Yes, there are plans to make Infernal Clock Publishing a thing and there is likely to be a volume 2 of some sort. We’re concentrating on pushing this for now and marketing is harder than production! Brian Creek (6am ‘Delayed’) likened the broader aspects of our project such as the blog and Steph’s 666 tunes list and links to the literary equivalent of DVD extras – something I really like and would want to explore further. Karen Gray (Midnight ‘Highland Games’) has been playing around with YouTube trailers and the writer/artist F.E. Clark, Carol R. Smith and others have been contributing what we’re calling ‘Infernal Art’ – my original intention was a full colour volume with complementary artwork for each story. We’ve also talked about an audiobook version…

What’s next? You don’t seem like a man to sit still for very long.

Well, my day job is about to get really intense, so I can’t give a timeframe, but I am going to attempt that novel. I have procrastinated long enough and it’s time to nail something exclusively Shakes to the world. I also hope to contribute to the newest FlashDogs project which will be an online magazine and I once threatened to do some rewrites of Enid Blyton tales for David Southwell who is busy mapping Hookland for the masses right now, but I still think there’s something in it.

I was tweeting the other night about a tongue-in-cheek leadership manual called – ‘Beerdership – What You Drink and How You Lead’ which I may actually have a go at too!

Who knows? As long as my midlife crisis continues, anything’s possible!

Follow David Shakes on Twitter @TheShakes72
Follow Steve on Twitter @STBwrites

Images courtesy of David Shakes

Find David Shakes' work on Amazon

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