A conversation with Miles Watson

Miles Watson is a multi-award winning author in several genres. Most recently he has won the Best Indie Book Award for Historical Fiction, for his World War II novel, Sinner’s Cross (reviewed in my next post).

In this interview, I am honoured to escort him to the under-stairs cupboard of my literary building site, to sit in the dark and reflect on its power.


Mr Watson, Miles… Actually I have always thought of you as @TheMilesWatson, since I have been interested for a while in your Twitter feed. So let me start again.

TheMiles, I am deeply honoured to have you visit my building site – no, I mean my book site. Please put on this hard hat anyway: my site is a work in progress and writing is a dangerous business. Follow me. Don’t worry about the red lines on the floor – they are the lines I do not cross – but you can ignore them. Your books certainly go to places that I wouldn’t, but perhaps there are also lines in your writing – or in interviews – that you do not cross? Is there anything I should know?

Early this year I met a horror writer – far more successful commercially than myself – who more or less boasted that there were various subjects he wouldn’t touch in his fiction, because they upset him too much, or they might be considered exploitative.

I came away from the meeting feeling bafflement and contempt, and I think this harsh reaction goes to my philosophy generally, which is that we ought to begin where we are uncomfortable and push from there. Nervousness and anxiety about doing something are, as the saying goes, usually a good indicator that we ought to do it, because that is how we grow both as writers and as human beings. I truly believe that most in life accomplishments and all great art come through a process of struggle, and a goodly portion of that struggle is internal. When we take our lantern and go exploring within ourselves, we come up against inhibitions and fears and insecurities and forbidden desires, and this is really the essence of art: the friction that occurs between who we were and who we are becoming through experience. No matter what your genre or field of artistic or creative interest, you ought to be challenging yourself by directly attacking those things that scare the hell out of you.

So, to come to the point, I suppose there are lines I wouldn’t cross as a writer, but I’m damned if I know what they are: I haven’t come within screaming distance of any of any. Yet.

Here we are: the cupboard under the stairs. I thought you’d like the darkness of it. I’ll have to go in first. If I crouch down like this you can sit there by the door, then if you feel the need, you can escape my questions at any point. So, let’s begin. TheMiles, your writing crosses various genres. You are clearly a technically consummate writer – you could write anything. But all of your stories make me feel uncomfortable. (In fact I am quite uncomfortable right now). And there’s probably a lot more money to be made in writing things that challenge the reader less, or in advertising, or in journalism. So why do you invest your talents writing such dark and troubling stories?

There is indeed more money to be made doing things like copywriting, ghostwriting, technical writing, and so forth, than in writing creatively. I know this from personal experience. The stark fact is that the vast majority of writers, whether they publish traditionally or independently or what have you, do not make enough to live by writing alone. I have friends and colleagues with big-time agents and Big Six publishing contracts who can’t quit their day jobs, and some cases, who make so much more from their “civilian” careers than from fiction that on paper you wonder why the hell they bother. In the broad sense, the answer is simple: writing is not something I do, it’s something I am. If you pin a sheriff’s badge on me, or hand me the Crown Jewels, or put me in uniform and send me off to war, I will still be a writer. I will always view the world through that lens: It’s my nature. So to continue my answer into the narrower sense, the one that leads to my doorstep, I write in the vein that I do, which you describe as “dark and troubling,” because drama is conflict, and the more extreme the conflict, the more inherent the drama. It makes for good reading.

But is that the whole answer? Of course not. I write “dark and troubling” because I’m a dark and troubled person. My capacity for anger is greater, or at least closer to the surface, than my capacity for love. I have the usual set of cliché-ridden grudges against the world around me, but at least I have the saving grace of being able to pick up a hammer and a chisel and beat those grudges into something that looks like art. Not many people are blessed with that luxury.

Careful! You are waving your arms as you talk! The electrical work is not complete and there are loose wires everywhere – please, they are live. There’s a lot of power here. You could kill yourself. I felt you would be at home in such an environment. When I read your books, I feel the crackling of power all the time. Your writing is very intense, very fierce. Are you like that in life as well?

Opinions vary. I was told once I am a “high threshold, short fuse” person. I can control my temper better than some I know, but once I lose it, it stays gone and we need to send out search parties with lantern helmets to find it and bring it back.

I personally consider myself easygoing but passionate. My emotions are kind of set to 10, including my sense of humor. That was shaped somewhat by Tom Baker’s Doctor Who – he was delightfully subversive in the face of authority, which was me to a T in high school. But even more so, the character of Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, because Hawkeye was someone I could relate to emotionally as a kid. He didn’t want to be where he was, he was outraged and frightened by what was going on around him, and he didn’t trust the people who ran the world, so he used humor to stay sane. That’s me.

On the other hand, Hawk also had a scary vein of anger in him, and I guess my temper, and the anger that drives it, comes partially from having this wretched writer’s brain. I brood. I overthink. I have the gift of being able to sense people’s true motives, and the curse of being compelled to call them out where a more prudent person might keep silent. I also get bored easily, have little patience, and, according to my mum, the lowest threshold of frustration of any human being on this planet. Inanimate objects that fail me die quick, violent deaths. I also have an inability to tell the sort of soothing lies that mend fences in relationships. I will tell you if the dress makes you look fat…which, now that I think about it, may be why I’m single!

It’s been said that you can learn everything you need to know about a writer from his writing, and I suppose that is true in the sense that my writings reflect, both consciously and unconsciously, my views on life and my underlying personality. I am contained to some degree in all of my characters, even the monsters. If you want to know me, read my books. I’m on every page.

Oh I do read your books! Did you not realise? Perhaps I am not your target audience? What sort of person would you most like to read your work? When you write, do you have a reader in your head?

I do not have an ideal reader per se: any reader is my ideal audience, because I believe if writing is good enough, if the underlying story is good enough, then the audience will come, drawn by the quality of the work. This may be naïve nonsense but I believe it.

I don’t write in one genre because I don’t read in one genre and I don’t know many people who do. I definitely do not gun for a particular audience, a demographic or what have you. I think that’s a very dangerous game to play, because sooner or later, you become imprisoned in the expectations of your readership. You start writing what you think they want rather than what you think is good. Catering becomes pandering, and a writer who panders either becomes a hack or a kind of pastiche of himself. We’ve all seen actors, writers, directors and musicians whose later work is a kind of parody of the stuff they created in their prime, and it’s a gruesome sight. This type of person forgets who is leading the dance.

This isn’t politic to say, God knows, but to be a good writer requires some element of emotional Fascism, some willingness to play the cartoon dictator who believes he “knows what’s good for the people” and doesn’t need counsel from the yokels. There’s more than a little arrogance in that position, and more than a little danger, but I think it less dangerous than pandering and more likely to produce a great work. Art is risk. Full stop.

And you like risk. On twitter you describe yourself as a bareknuckle boxing enthusiast. I have noticed a strange thing. Of the authors whose writing I most admire, most also do martial arts. Some of them include it in their stories, as you have done, and some don’t – but even in writers who make no mention of it, I often find it there, somewhere in the background when I stalk their lives. Do you think there is a connection between martial arts and powerful fiction?

That’s a fascinating question. I do believe there may be a connection there, and it probably has to do not only with the fact that martial arts and combat sports are inherently dramatic – they are, after all, based on physical conflict – but also require tremendous discipline, just like writing does.

Are there parallels in the discipline, though? Do they share the same drivers in personality?

I’ve spent my entire life, literally since I was in single digits, mesmerized by the power of words and determined to learn how to use them, and I think martial artists are the same way, but about the human body. They see in it its potential to do amazing things and they want that power for themselves. I know that I did, the first time I witnessed an Aikido demonstration when I was sixteen years old. It looked like magic to me, but it was merely the end product of a positive crap-ton of hard work.

The truth is we live in an age when the ancient notions of serving first as an apprentice, then as a journeyman, and finally, after years of study and sweat, as a master, have gone by the wayside and millions of people think that mastery can be achieved by two TED talks and a how-to video on YouTube. Instagram just reinforces that delusion. It’s all a function of technology: we’re obsessed with speed, and nobody wants to make the effort…or take the time. But as my martial arts instructor once told me, “You can’t fake it in the ring. If you put in the work, it will show. If you didn’t, that will show, too.”

Writers know this applies to them as well, and perhaps that’s why we’re attracted to disciplines that also run on this rule.

I understand you used to work in law enforcement. What was your role? Can you say a bit about why you chose that job?

I decided when I was still a teenager that I needed to experience the grittier, more dangerous side of life if I ever wanted to write true words. Hemingway’s dictum that “a man shouldn’t write what he doesn’t know” is a bit extreme, because (for example) I’m pretty sure Tolkien never met an orc or a dragon, but on the other hand, if Tolkien hadn’t gone to war, I’m not sure he could have written Lord of the Rings. His experiences with conflict and danger flavored his work, as did Orwell’s, Wouk’s, Mailer’s, Sassoon’s, Graves’s, Jünger’s, and so many other writers. I knew this even as a kid so I opted for law enforcement as a career. I worked first as a parole officer, then an investigator for the district attorney, and finally as a correctional specialist. I even did some private investigative work.

And how has all that experience influenced your writing?

Taken all in all it did influence my writing, but largely in ways I never expected. In a sense it fed into the wrong side of my personality, because in criminal justice you deal with bureacracy, with politics, with corruption, with victims of violent crime, with the perpetrators of same, and you don’t go home at night with the greatest faith in human nature or the systems humans develop to govern themselves. As George Bowling says about civilization in Orwell’s minor masterpiece Coming Up For Air, “It’s all a bloody balls-up.” And I think that’s what comes through in my writing the most: my protagonists are always slamming into the flaws of the systems in which they live and operate.

So what made you change your career path?

If you’ve read Sinner’s Cross, you must have noticed how chaotic the battles are, and how the shells fall in the wrong places and the captain gets run over by his own tank and nobody, American or German, has any faith in their leaders or even understands why the hell the battle is even being fought. It’s the same in my Cage Life series, and Devils You Know, my short story collection, and in all my other works too: things fall apart, the center does not hold. Like Dr. Lecter says, Chaos is the only religion which requires no faith, because it is self-evident. That, I guess, is what I took away from my time in the system, and I suppose that is why I left. That, and of course, the fact that, like Orwell, who spent five years in the Imperial Police in Burma before he chucked it up to write, I was outraging my true nature by not writing.

Things are perhaps a little different for me now in the sense that I might actually be able to go back and do the job now with the same efficiency but less of the naïve expectations that caused me to become so bitter. A second time around, I might be disgusted, but I wouldn’t be disappointed.

But you still aren’t ‘just’ a writer. What about your Hollywood career? Make up effects? What’s going on there? That’s a bit of a leap from criminal justice isn’t it?

When I left criminal justice, I went back to school full time for a few years, and it was wonderful, but I was living in a small town in Pennsylvania and enjoying a very comfortable, really almost decadent life, and I guess my inherent need for struggle and challenge started to get the better of me. I’d always been fascinated with Hollywood as an industry and Los Angeles as a place, and when I hit my mid-thirties, I decided if I didn’t go now, I’d never go at all. So I went. And it so happened the first job I got in the industry was in the front office at a make-up effects studio that handled several television shows.

I gather it’s the gory bits you do. Is there any connection between that and your writing?

The funny thing about the entertainment industry is that it’s almost impossible to break into it, but once you do, you’re in. So I ended up getting work at another studio, and another, in various different capacities, including, as you said, making the gory bits, which are constructed out of foam latex or silicone. I’ve helped make aliens, and zombies, and demons, and armies of charred, shot-up, drowned, half-eaten, frost-bitten corpses. I suppose I’ve worked directly or indirectly on about 200 episodes of television, on shows like Heroes, CSI: New York, True Blood, The Walking Dead, The Orville, Castle Rock and so forth, and about a half-dozen feature films. I’ve also done a spot of acting here and there, if you want to call it acting, and written for Netflix, and worked very extensively in the video game industry.

I do take pleasure in some of the things this town has to offer me, such as the chance to go swimming in February or to meet and even work with people I grew up watching on television, but my relationship with Los Angeles is very much a love-hate affair. At the present time I can’t say there’s a connection between my fiction-writing and my Hollywood life, but one day, believe me, I will lower the boom on this place, because short of Mos Eisley you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

What you write is always very visual, sometimes cinematic. Perhaps Hollywood has affected you more than you think?

It’s interesting you mention cinema, because I do often write my scenes with a kind of cinematic eye. Like many people I’m very engaged by colors and movement, and I’m also obsessed with snappy, realistic-yet-slightly-stylized dialog, so I suppose a lot of my books lend themselves to movie adaptation.

So if you could have one of your books or one of your short stories turned into a film, which one would it be? And who would you choose to direct it? (OK, be honest with me! Because whatever work you pick, whoever you suggest, I’ll pitch it to them… No, of course I don’t know any film directors – but I have plenty of chutzpah…)

Who would direct would depend – the Cage Life books might be perfect for someone like Kathryn Bigelow, who understands the relationship between the beauty of the human body and the violence it is capable of inflicting, and also the deeper spiritual elements behind something that seems very superficial at first glance. I also feel like Bigelow understands the masculine voice very well, better, in fact, than many men.

Sinner’s Cross…that’s a tough one, because it’s not enough to shoot the battle scenes brilliantly, you have to avoid falling into Greatest Generation worship, or worn-out clichés about the Germans, when you deal with the characters. The whole damned point of the book is to avoid cliché and trope and try to do right by all the WW2 veterans I ever interviewed when I was a history major. Those guys weren’t icons, they were human beings and they never asked to be worshiped like gods. If Michael Mann shot it the way he shot Heat, with equal emphasis on the action and the characters and their arcs, I think he could pull it off, and I’d say the same thing for Oliver Stone, if he did it the way he did Platoon.

Can I risk a question about your childhood? You see, when I interview a writer I am always looking for the connection between the writer and the writing. I already have the writings, after all, it is the writer I don’t know… You describe yourself somewhere as your father’s youngest son. Is that important to who you are now?

Being the younger of two sons definitely put a stamp on my personality. I was the baby of the family. I think that caused me to mature much more slowly than I should have, and I caught a lot of hell for it in school later on, which caused me to swallow a lot of anger – which, of course, I have been breathing out ever since, mostly into my writing. But – and I want to emphasize this – it would be totally wrong to say I had an unhappy childhood: I just reacted to the bad parts of it more strongly than most, because I was the baby and had thin skin and a sense of naïvete about human nature.

The fact is, I have wonderful memories of growing up in Illinois and Maryland and even many good memories of high school. It was that between-period, say 10 – 14 years of age, when you’re no longer a child but not quite an adult, that I found so lonely and torturous, and I suppose some of my characters, like Mickey from Cage Life, are drawn from that period, in the sense that they tend to feel isolated, and as if the world is their enemy. It’s a common sentiment among kids that age, and I’d be willing to bet serious money it’s a common sentiment among writers, period. Perhaps we’re all just too damned sensitive at the wrong time. Then again, where would we be without our scars and sorrows?

Is your older brother jealous of your success? Impressed by the awards that you have garnered by your writing?

My brother is far more financially successful than I am. He’s won a few trophies in his own field, and he’s always been supportive of my writing. So has my mum. My family, thank God, has always backed me to the hilt.

You are heterosexual, and in one of your blogs you remark that you are good at making love. (Surely a dangerous tack?) But in your writing I sense little interest in women. Can you comment on this? (Maybe no? That’s fine – here, take the paint pot, feel free to paint any lines that you like… I may still not see them though: it’s pretty dark in here.)

Oh, there is interest, a great deal of interest indeed. It’s simply that the works of mine you’ve probably read were originally written during a period in my life when I was speaking primarily with my masculine voice, because I didn’t understand women and therefore couldn’t write them authentically with the same nuances and subtleties I bring to my male characters.

You see, what distinguishes an amateur (or a poseur) from a professional is not knowing what you can do, it’s knowing what you can’t. In the entertainment industry, I’ve seen veteran actors or make-up effects artists or stunt men say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.” I’ve seen veteran cops, guys with Medals of Valor, shrug and say, “We can’t handle this. Best call for SWAT.” They did it with no shame. Why should they be ashamed? They know the precise dimensions of their wheelhouse, and while they may be interested in enlarging it, they won’t move on that particular project until they can bring their full intelligence and ability to the task.

Lest you think I’m contradicting myself, that’s not the same as staying comfortable or making a safe choice. It’s knowing where your limits are before you try to expand them. It’s saying to yourself, “This scares me because I don’t have the chops for it, so I’ll roll up my sleeves and learn the chops, but in the mean time, I won’t pretend I can pull it off.” I knew I couldn’t write women very well, so I stayed away from them so I wouldn’t write one badly.

Well, time has passed, and I still don’t understand women, but I misunderstand them less now than I did when I was, say, 17 or 27, and am far more confident writing about them. Of course, you also have to consider where I’m coming from. My first two novels were in the hard-boiled crime vein, and the women in those types of stories are generally archetypes – the wealthy, hapless damsel in distress or the black widow who devours her mate. My third novel, Sinner’s Cross, is of course a WW2 story that takes place at the front, and there was no room for women in the story as I’d plotted it. In future volumes of that series, women will play a role, not out of some politically correct exercise in box-checking, but because the characters created themselves within my head and demanded entry into the story.

That’s the way I work everywhere: I have an ironclad maxim that the way characters and scenarios come into my head is the way they hit the page, whether I like them or not, whether I control them or not. It was that maxim that led me to write a novel I haven’t yet released, in which the main character is a young woman of extreme complexity. She emerged, so to speak, from one of those dark corners in my soul and the thought of bringing her to life so terrified me that I knew instantly I had to bow to force and write a book about her. But really, doesn’t all of this come back to discomfort? I didn’t want to write about women, so I did. Like David Goggins maintains, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s how we grow.

As for my love-making abilities, surely any boasting I did in that regard was tongue-in-cheek. Tongue in somebody’s cheek, anyway.

I started off uncomfortable, but now perhaps it’s you. Perhaps you want the light on? One last question, then I’ll show you the way back to the carpark. Your stories are pretty dystopic on the whole, but there is always – however tortuously – a moral quality to them. I sense that you are interested in ethics. So let’s finish with something uplifting, something utopian! If you could tweak the human DNA to insert one drive or principle that would modify the human psyche – something that humans would instinctively be prone to follow – what would that be?

I’m pleased you mentioned this. My books, in my estimation, are moral tales. Nothing more and nothing less. The trick is that the moral is buried beneath a lot of bad behavior, and you have to sift to find it. I’m not just gonna give it to you. The fact is, I have a passionate hatred of bullying and injustice and cruelty, so if I could rewire human nature, I’d give everyone – including myself, especially myself, preferably retroactive to about 1982 – a big fat endorphin rush from acts of kindness. Many humans experience pleasure from sadistic behavior, but not many seem to experience equivalent pleasure from acts of compassion. Maybe it would cheapen the emotion, but I’m damned if I don’t think the world could use more of it.

Most certainly! Thank you Miles Watson. I am proud that you have visited my site. I hope you like my review of Sinner’s Cross. And I very much hope that you go on writing: perhaps you will come back and visit me again when you have written another book….

The Hard Hat Book Site

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