By Emily Oldfield

Nicholas Royle as Freud

“Can you judge a book by its cover?… of course you can!” reflects Nicholas Royle as we sit down to talk over a quartet of beautiful short story chapbooks published by Nightjar Press – where Nicholas is both Editor and Publisher.

Born in Manchester in 1963, and growing up in Altrincham, Nicholas went on to later study in London – a city that significantly informs his own writing and he still visits often. The author of seven novels, three volumes of short stories and two novellas, he is also an Editor at Salt Publishing. When working in Manchester, he is Reader in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize and it is in this city he established a particularly gripping way of giving people short stories: Nightjar Press.

The name in itself, is intriguing. The Nightjar – also known as the ‘corpse fowl’ or ‘goatsucker’ – is a bird often heard rather than seen, choosing to hunt during the mysterious hours of dawn and dusk. Nightjar Press very much follows this inspiration, publishing short story chapbooks that feel delightfully delicate to hold, yet are weighted with the weird themes of darkness, The Uncanny and The Gothic. Designed by John Oakey, the books are finalised with enigmatic cover imagery - often the work of local artists or Nicholas himself.

“Nightjar is an opportunity for me to express my creativity in a form other than writing. I will try to do a lot of the photography on the covers for example, and also pay artists for their work.”

Cover art is after all a key part of the Nightjar Press aesthetic, with the chapbooks often paired by design. For example, Mike Fox’s The Violet Eye and The Message by Philippa Holloway sit across from each other on the table, each decorated with a bird linocut by Alex Needham.

“I love books and paper, there is no substitute for that – and I love things having a cover and thought,” reflects Nicholas. “Creative energy goes in the production of these chapbooks. That’s why when people say:‘can you judge a book by its cover?’… of course you can! It is part of the experience.”

Nightjar books

Yet in a fast-moving city society where people express that they are pressed for time, does Nicholas think this is negatively affecting our relationship with reading?

“You often hear people saying the likes of: ‘I have so little time’ or ‘I don’t have the attention span’ when it comes to reading – and although I’m not a lover of Ebooks myself – if people are reading, I don’t mind how and when. On that point, if people read my latest novel – First Novel – on a Kindle, they might have a bit of an unnerving experience…”

He smiles. The first part of his exploratory, meta-fictional First Novel - consists of someone dismantling a Kindle.

Nicholas is after all no stranger to the unnerving, The Uncanny and the unusual. His first novel Counterparts (1993) attracted attention for its ‘nightmarish’ intrigue and his works have gone on to enchant and create unease in equal measure, forever flourishing against the mainstream. His third novel, for example, The Matter of The Heart (1997) has a particularly psychogeographic quality, taking on the untapped aspects of the cityscape. Step into the world of his short fiction and you will encounter darkness a-plenty too; his latest collection is titled The Dummy & Other Uncanny Stories (2018) and in 2017 Ornithology was published, sixteen short stories inspired by The Uncanny qualities of birds.

“I have always been attracted to The Uncanny,” he elaborates. “That applies to both reading and films – I am drawn, like a fascination, towards it. Elements such as twins, doubles, doppelgangers; these are often considered examples of The Uncanny and I have always been interested in such things. It is in itself weird though, as I didn’t identify these interests as ‘The Uncanny’ for a long time, I didn’t have a term for it. It was only fairly late on, when I was asked by Comma Press to write a short story for The New Uncanny and I read Freud’s essay on the subject, that I actually realised that was what I was doing! Even more uncannily, there is another writer also called Nicholas Royle, who has explored such subjects… he probably thinks I am encroaching on his territory!”

Nicholas Royle Books

Yet our Nicholas Royle’s territory is very much his own – and on that point – place, landscape and the cityscape are territories regularly trodden in his writing, and in life.

“I moved to London in 1982 – it was where I went to university,” he reflects. “I stayed there for twenty years. I moved back to Manchester in 2003 and now I divide my time between the two cities. Both have inspired my writing, though I wouldn’t necessarily say the ‘uncanniness’ differs between them, so to speak. I find, and am drawn to, The Uncanny wherever I am.”

It is in Manchester after all, that Nicholas has taken creative inspiration from elements of the everyday uncanny, exploring past lives as well as personal histories – a subject he considers extensively:

“The past is always replaying itself: I certainly feel that in Manchester. I was brought up here… and there is something uncanny even about that, to me. In a sense, I feel really strongly that I could just walk back into my childhood home and the new owners of the home would let me back in… I am just very curious to go back in. Of course, I don’t know if that would be the case in reality! Since 1982 that house has haunted me, I can’t stop thinking about it. I had a happy childhood there… so perhaps it is the realisation that actually I can’t go back, that it will have changed, which haunts me. There is a park I used to play in when I was child, close to the towpath of the Bridgewater Canal, and it is really strange being in these places now – replaying at the same time those incredibly vivid memories. That feels like a haunting, that I am haunted by my happy childhood.”

Nicholas also explores past lives through his interaction with historic sites and abandoned buildings in the city:

“I have always been drawn to abandoned buildings here in Manchester - you feel then that you are exploring other people’s past lives. Any number of people could have worked or lived in them over time; it is almost like an imprint left on the fabric of these places.

“I did that a lot when I moved back here in 2003: found lots of buildings that were empty and explored them. Now many of them are being renovated and transformed. Take the Mayfield depot, for example – I got in there and explored it when it was still empty, I took loads of pictures. It seems strange now that you can go in there to an event. I liked exploring them on my own! Again, Barnes Hospital in Cheadle was much more interesting to me as abandoned. Partly the motivation for doing this was that I wanted to write things in these places, and even though I didn’t use them, they probably helped with other stuff. The ideas and themes raised by place often recur in my work.”

Nicholas Royle Profile

The Gothic is another influence on Nicholas’ writing, and a subject he has found himself grappling with recently.

“I don’t have a definition of The Gothic – and I need one!” he says. “I’m working on a new book and thinking of calling it London Gothic, as that is the title of one of the stories that will be part of it. There will be new stories and well as some reprints.”

Yet as well as his own writing, Nicholas often nurtures the work of others; as a teacher, Editor and Publisher.

“Nightjar Press is very much a labour of love; I don’t do it for the money, I’m just trying not to lose money!” he says, before gesturing to one of the chapbooks. All Nightjar Press chapbooks are limited edition and signed, often hand-packaged by Nicholas himself before sending. Just some examples of writers published on the press include Joel Lane, Matt Thomas, Alison Moore, Elizabeth Stott, Florence Sunnen and David Rose. But why focus on short stories in particular?

“I just love the short story, it’s my favourite form,” he emphasizes. “There is a special intimacy which is created between the writer and the reader. We usually read a short story in one go, even though it is not usually written in one go.

“I’m also very drawn to experimental writing, experimental techniques in fiction. The short story form is good that, for taking risks, as less is at stake, in a sense. The form allows people to be more willing to take that risk too; both as a reader, and as a writer.  There is something about the brevity which is exciting too, like I’m always more drawn to short novels than longer novels.”

Nightjar Press Books

Nicholas’ passion for short stories could be considered particularly interesting, given his love for film – a form often seen as expansive, rather than concise. Yet he has something to say on this:

“It’s no accident that the best films are the adaptations of short stories, they work better in films than novels. My favourite film is Don’t Look Now adapted from a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, for example. What a short story and a film have a common, is that you both read a short story and watch a film in one go – you can commit to that. You are in that world for that time with a writer, that’s such an enormously exciting meeting of minds.”

 But how does he go about the process of selection?

“I really have to fall for a story,” he considers. “When I’m rejecting a story, it’s because it just doesn’t ‘feel right’. It’s not like there is a list of ‘uncanny’ elements I am ticking off! That’s why I rarely describe Nightjar as a ‘Horror press’, because if people buy the books on that basis, it could colour their perceptions before reading. I don’t want to miss-sell what we are publishing. The material might not always be outwardly horrific… there is darkness there, but sometimes it is subtle.”

“Strange, odd and creepy are three attributes that can help make something a Nightjar story. These are not negative in my eyes – these are positive qualities you certainly want to read in a story. Really good stories have the power to haunt. All my favourite novels, stories and films continue to haunt me. Yes, a really good strange story can unsettle you and leave you with more questions than answers. The open door will stay with you too.”

For more about Nicholas Royle, you can visit his website.

Featured image: Nicholas Royle as Freud, part of a sequence of self-portraits in which Nicholas embodies various cultural figures