Art and the Artist: An Interview With Clive Barker
By Lucy A. Snyder
16 March 2009
Clive Barker was born in Liverpool, England in 1952 and began writing and painting at an early age. After writing for the theatre, he made an auspicious print-media debut with Books of Blood, which was released in 1984. His novels The Damnation Game and The Hellbound Heart followed in the next two years, and Barker became famous as the writer/director of the classic horror movie Hellraiser and as the creator of the Cenobites.
However, Barker's fiction has evolved well past his early horror roots, and in more recent years he has written fantasy epics and children's literature. In total, he's written nearly thirty novels and story collections along with several books of plays, essays, and poetry. He's directed six films and produced fourteen other movies such as Gods and Monsters. His work has been widely adapted for comic books, graphic novels, and video games. And of course he has created hundreds of paintings.
Barker's writing has won the World Fantasy Award, two British Fantasy Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, and the International Horror Guild Award. In 2003, he received the Davidson/Valentini Award at the 15th Annual GLAAD Media Awards. GLAAD stated that he earned the honor through his positive portrayal of gay characters in his works (most notably in his bestselling novel Sacrament) and his outspoken support of the LGBT community.
Barker currently lives in Los Angeles, California with his partner, photographer David Armstrong. Interviewer Lucy Snyder was able to speak with him in December 2008 while Barker was taking a break from writing and illustrating the third book in his Abarat quintet.
Lucy Snyder: When you were starting out as a writer, what preconceptions did you have about becoming an author, and how did they stand up to the reality you've experienced?
Clive Barker: I had no preconceptions, absolutely none. I didn't know any writers, I didn't actually think about that. It's interesting you should ask that; nobody has asked that before.
I've always written, and I've always made paintings, and on my door I have a quote from William Blake: "Make your own laws or be slave to another man's." And I think that's how I've always made art, and if that sounds a little simplistic then it probably is.
I got into the Royal College of Art in London, but I never attended. I had a preparatory year at the college in Liverpool, and then I was to go to the Royal College of Art, which I was hugely excited about because I wanted to be a painter.
But I come from a very working-class family, and my parents didn't want me to go to art school. They said, "Please, this is the last thing we'll ever ask of you, we've supported you going to these schools and it's been expensive, please don't disappoint us now by wasting it all by becoming a painter."
You can see where their heads were at; they wanted me to do something tangible. I think they figured I'd end up becoming an English teacher. But as a result I deliberately waited way too long on my applications, deliberately waited way, way past the time where I could get into university. Unfortunately my headmaster called and did some special pleading on my behalf and I was sort of trapped. And I said, "Well, I guess I'm fucked here," and I went and studied English and philosophy; the latter subject I took because I thought it was the most useless possible thing to do, the least applicable thing in the world. It was sort of my petty revenge upon the fact that I was being asked to do this in the first place.
In retrospect, my parents were right and I was wrong, though they were right for the wrong reasons. If I'd gone to the Royal College of Art, I would have been trapped in an educational system that would have taught me a lot of things I didn't need. Or worse, it would have taught me nothing at all. This was in the 1970s, and it was a time when there was a lot of wacky experimentation with performance art, etc. I remember going to a gallery and there was toast burning somewhere and I said, "Where's the art?" and they said, "Can't you smell it?"
So, I think I might have sort of gotten trapped in all that. And when I discovered oil painting, I was in my forties. I was completely new to it, I was a virgin. And I was able to apply Blake's edict, because I didn't have anybody else's laws.
LS: You initially started out writing plays, correct?
CB: Yes, but I wrote short stories and a novel preceding that. The best of those stories are in The Adventures of Mr. Maximillian Bacchus and His Travelling Circus, which has just been published with amazing illustrations by Richard Kirk. There was also the novel The Candle in the Cloud, which maybe will one day be published, who knows. There was a lot of activity writing prose before the plays, but anyway, yes, I did start with plays, as far as the biographies are concerned as it were.
LS: How do you think that working on the early plays informed the rest of your writing?
CB: Oh, hugely, because making plays makes you very aware of your responsibility to your audience in a way that really no other medium does, even cinema.
LS: How do you think your writing would have evolved if you hadn't been in a place where you could participate in theatre?
CB: Well, I'm a homosexual, so me finding theatre was bound to happen! That isn't entirely a joke. I think that gay men with any real heat to their nature—I'm not now talking about the heat between their legs—I'm talking about how that influences the way that they think, their appetites for art, and whether they like Stephen Sondheim or not, whether they know who Stephen Sondheim is or not. They will gravitate to places where they, firstly, can be their own people, and meet their own people, and, yes, fall in love, and yes, have sex, but I think more importantly, shape the culture. I think that AIDS did a terrible thing to the culture. I think it stripped it of an amazing number of extraordinary artists. And I think we won't really know the scale of that damage for many years to come. But we'll see that there's a hole in the culture that has never properly filled.
So, back to your question. If I had not been able to go to a place with theatre, I would have done what I did when I was eight: I would have made a public theatre. There was a double-door at the back of our back yard that led onto the alleyway and opened inwards. I was able to put a little puppet theatre there. And over three or four summers starting when I was eight, I was able to put on afternoon shows twice a week, and perhaps have six or seven people in my alleyway audience to watch some self-invented tale of ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
We lived in a place with its measure of violence, domestic violence, and so on. And I was very cognizant of that. Capote's words are best: I think he said, "Writers are missing three skins." I certainly felt that as a kid. I don't think it's just writers who are missing skins; I think lots of people in other professions are in the same thing. I think lawyers of a certain kind who fight for the disenfranchised are also missing skins. I'm not going to make a nonsense kind of argument for any sort of higher moral grandeur of artists. There are lots of people in lots of other professions. I mention lawyers because lawyers get a particularly bad beating, but actually there are lawyers out there who do fucking amazing work for nothing. And they tend not to get the headlines.
LS: It's easier to make them out to be the bad guys.
CB: Yes, exactly. And we do the same thing with politicians. There are many very good men and women working in politics. Very good men and women, who came to it because it was a vocation. And I'm fed up with the world being divided up into the good guys and the bad guys. It just doesn't work for me. It's not a question of black hats and white hats; that's the movies. The truth is we live in shades of gray. Everybody has their dark days and their dark secrets. Everybody. Without exception. And it just doesn't work to divide the world up in that simpleminded fashion. It's condescending to the human experience.
LS: If you could go back, would you do anything differently as far as pursuing a creative career would go?
CB: No. And the inevitable question is "Why 'no'?" The danger with those what-if questions is that they sort of eradicate the element of chance.
When I was a teenager, my art teacher was Helen Clarke, and she was not, on her own admission, an incredibly good teacher. She was missing five skins, never mind three. But she was just an extraordinary lady. And she took me to her heart very early on and invited me to her house in downtown Liverpool, which was a very scary place for me to go because I lived in the suburbs. It had a reputation for being a place where people murdered each other, and the kid two houses down murdered his aunt, so I guess it did come fairly close to me.
But I'd get on the bus and go downtown at night at the age of thirteen. . . . It doesn't sound like much now, but for a kid back in the 60s, it was a whole other thing. And I would go, and I would meet her artistic friends, and they were all adults, and I was a kid, and I was treated like an adult, and there were a lot of gay men. I didn't realize that, I didn't understand that, and when one of them actually invited me to bed I fled in terror. I was probably fourteen or fifteen; I was just terrified. What Helen did was bring me into a world which on occasion was too big for me, too much for me.
And on another occasion, she bought the first picture of any scale that I painted; it was an illustration of A Midsummer Night's Dream that was extremely dark, in the sense that it was chiaroscuro shadow and a little light flowing through trees. It was a big picture as I remember it, five by four, perhaps a little smaller. And she had a midnight unveiling of it, and she paid me fifteen pounds for it, which to me at the age of fourteen was a massive amount of money. And the fact that a teacher would be commissioning a painting from me . . . I think you can put yourself in my place and imagine what an enormous honor that felt like. That it was, to have somebody who taught me wanting to pay money to have a picture from me.
But the thing is, she chose, and that's not always good. She was not a good general educator. She may be now, but she was not at that time. She was in her middle twenties. . . .
LS: So in a lot of ways she was still a kid herself.
CB: Yeah, exactly. Can you imagine? I was certainly wet behind the ears at twenty-four, I'm sure you were too, right? Her choosing me was wonderful for me but really wrong for the other twenty-nine kids in the class.
LS: Did her favoring you create any problems for you?
CB: Of course. I got bullied horribly. And I got bullied horribly because it was much clearer to everybody else that I was a queer boy than it was to me. By the age of fourteen I was having a very intense relationship with a kid in the Boy Scouts. And we would meet in the attic of the scout house on Friday and Saturday, and be with one another, naked, but not always doing stuff. And when we were doing stuff it was pretty innocent stuff. But I remember very clearly him saying, "Come and sit on my knee" and then he said, "I'm not a homo, you know." And I had not a clue what he was talking about. I was like, "What's a homo?"
LS: One last thing I wanted to ask you about . . . some people had been expressing concern over the fact that your voice had been getting quite hoarse.
CB: I've had two operations to have polyps removed from my throat, and if you'd spoken to me a few months ago, the voice you'd be hearing would be much different. I sounded like an orc. My voice was a gravelly growl, and it was painful. My voice I think sounds pretty good now.
LS: Yes, you sound great now! I was just wondering if it was fine to tell people about your surgeries, etc.
CB: I would adore it if you could tell people. They found twenty-five polyps in my throat. One doctor—do doctors exaggerate? I expect they do—but one of the doctors said that I was taking in ten percent of the air that I should have been taking in.
So, I feel orders of magnitude better than I felt before the surgery. I'm passionate about the work, I'm passionate about my life, and I feel very, very good. It's wonderful that people are concerned, but I didn't have cancer, which I know a lot of people were concerned about. I don't smoke; I gave up my cigars. I don't drink. A dull life! But you know, it's all going on in my head, and it'll keep on going for a long time I hope.