We’re almost into the New Year. A new beginning. A time of optimism and hope. Philip Taffs doesn’t do optimism and hope. Not when he’s writing, at least. His dark novel The Evil Inside follows one man’s descent into hell when he moves with his family from Melbourne to New York after painful tragedy strikes. Guy Russell’s life and sanity begin to implode when he begins to suspect that his son is possessed. It’s a gripping psychological drama, as well as a deliciously dark horror novel.
I’m delighted to say that Philip is kicking off our 2015 by giving us the intel on his inspiration, the secret of writing horror, psychic premonition — and, of course, his writing process.
Tell us about The Evil Inside…
An Australian ad creative moves to a mysterious hotel in New York with his family and slowly becomes convinced that his 3-year-old son, Callum, has become possessed by a dark, dangerous force from his past…
Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?
A psychic – who had no idea I was a writer – told me 17 years ago that I’d write and publish ‘a Stephen King-type book and go and live in America.’ I did unexpectedly go to America to work and live and a whole lot of other stuff he said came to pass…. so I just had to keep going. In terms of literary and filmic inspiration, American Psycho, The Shining, Kubrick’s film of The Shining, The Small Assassin by Ray Bradbury, Taxi Driver, Hitchcock films, No Logo by Naomi Klein and Rosemary’s Baby, the book and film.
You live in Melbourne, but The Evil Inside is set in New York – why did you set it there?
Because in 2000, I was actually lucky enough to live and work in New York for a year. I lived in the hotel, the Olcott, featured in the novel for 4 months: it was very atmospheric (as the Stanley Hotel was for Stephen King when he conceived of The Shining). After I’d returned from New York, I discovered that Mark David Chapman had stayed there at one stage before shooting John Lennon — that was another creative prod to get going and start writing.
What’s the secret of writing horror?
If I knew the secret to writing horror, I’d hire a bunch of other writers and become their manager. Perhaps the trick is to imagine the worst but then understate and delay it – so the reader feels that something awful is impending but doesn’t know what or when. ‘Something wicked this way comes,’ as Ray Bradbury said, or ‘suspense rather than surprise,’ as Hitchcock advocated — because a surprise can only happen once whereas suspense is a delicious prolongation.
There’s also the skill of holding back information but dropping little breadcrumb clues along the way that the reader can follow back once they get to the end: Fight Club is a brilliant example of this. By the way, The Evil Inside is as much a psych-thriller as much as psych-horror, as you are never entirely sure if something is real or imagined — or who’s telling the truth.
You’ve said that you’ve been rejected across three continents before being picked up by Quercus – is it important for a writer to have a thick skin?
In my case, working in advertising for 25 years gets you very used to rejection as it happens most days. Plus I had the advantage of the psychic prediction which was always my light at the end of the tunnel. The book is actually dedicated to the psychic, Alan Pilkington – and ‘you’ll see‘ became the novel’s mantra.
Why do so many advertising men become successful writers, do you think?
Advertising men — and women — on a daily basis learn to write to deadlines, suffer endless rejection, invariably get sent back to the drawing board and are often asked to reimagine things. So they have extra resilience and are far less sensitive than writers who perhaps haven’t done it as a day job before.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
As I have a teenager, a 7-year-old and an advertising business, there are no ‘typical days’. You write when you can. I often text myself when thoughts occur so I can refer to them later. I also often find going onto another more mundane project — or a run — gives your subconscious time to solve narrative problems. (Mondays are crap days for writing as they are for most things.)
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That success really is up to you. Unless you have a very lucky break, finding a decent agent and/or publisher is even harder than writing the book because it requires utter determination much more than talent.
How do you deal with feedback?
It’s funny: people whom you think will give you great feedback are often disappointingly reticent whereas people whom you don’t necessarily think of as ‘literary’ can give you very fertile things to think about. After a while, you learn to recognise a great idea when you see it and dismiss feedback you disagree with: it’s all a matter of cumulative confidence. Beware other writers: they will try to rewrite it the way they see it! Whereas advice from your editor proves to be correct 90% of the time…
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
When I was younger, John Irving was my God because he seemed to make very simple writing and great storytelling cool. Now I prefer Martin Amis for his wit and dexterity; Truman Capote for his style; F.Scott Fitzgerald for his humanity; Somerset Maugham for his atmosphere; Ira Levin for his suspense; Donna Tartt for The Secret History; and recently, Gillian Flynn for her hard truths beautifully expressed. (Gone Girl is the best book I’ve read in the last 15 years.)
Give me some advice about writing…
Read. Read. Read. Write anything for practice: articles, journalism, short stories, brochures, cereal packets – work those muscles. And never, ever, ever give up.
What’s next for you?
A suspense novel where someone turns up at a 30-year school reunion who can’t possibly turn up because…
So, look, The Evil Inside is published by Quercus. A Happy New Year to you, sirs and madams.