Justin Marriott Interview

Last year I had the pleasure of contributing to Justin Marriott's Paperbacks at War: 20th Century Conflict from the Front Lines of Vintage Paperbacks, Pulps and Comics, an in-depth look at over 170 wartime classics (and some not-so-classics). I wrote about Doomsday Mission by Harry Whittington, Hell to Eternity by Edward S. Aarons, The Dirty War of Sergeant Slade by Lou Cameron, Gresham's War by William Crawford, and Skylark Mission by Ian MacAlister.

Marriott is a prolific editor, writer, and publisher, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and Paperbacks at War.

Before we talk about Paperbacks at War, could you give a little background about yourself, and how your interest in literature developed?

I’m a pretty average Joe. Early 50s, married with two young daughters and living in a coastal town in the West of England. The day job is for a large financial organization where I work as a project manager in IT. 

I’ve still yet to develop any interest in literature! But I was a voracious reader from an early age, especially of comics, a habit I inherited from my dad. Growing up in the 70s in the UK, it was an age before video, and there were only 3 TV channels, all with limited programming aimed at kids. So Dr. Who was a must see on Saturday evenings, and the novelizations of Doctor Who were the first genre books I encountered. These were in the form of hardbacks loaned from the local library. I would read them cover to cover in a day. Even at that early age, I started to identify which authors I preferred—with Terrence Dicks, the creator of the Daleks, being a favourite. 

There was a big, out-of-town discount superstore my parents would take me and my younger brother to in the ‘70s. It was an asbestos riddled maze, which included a large stationery department with several spinner-rack of paperbacks. These boasted the distinctive saw-cut in the edges to show they were warehouse remainders and sold at less than cover price. We would be given our pocket-money and then spend hours choosing pens and paper (with which to draw our own comics) and perusing the paperbacks. I remember buying New English Library editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, specifically Tarzan and Synthetic Men of Mars. The latter, I found tremendously exciting to read with hero John Carter trapped in the body of one of the synthetic men and taking part in gladiatorial battles. I also found the salacious covers of space women in metal bikinis equally as exciting!

The first book I remember being passed around at school, handed over with a conspiratorial nod and a wink like dog-eared contraband in a prison camp, was Chopper, another New English Library book. This outlaw-biker classic was first published in 1971, but I’m talking about 1979 when I was ten, so it’s little wonder it was held together by Sellotape and spit after so many years in circulation. A biker version of Macbeth, replete with explicit sex and violence, it was entirely inappropriate for a ten-year old, which is exactly why it was so wonderful. Decades later, I discovered the author of Chopper had lived around the corner from my house for many years. 

A similar youth-cult book was Skinhead, which on top of the sex and violence was also deeply racist. When my parents found it and flicked through it, they disapproved and made me donate it to a yard-sale. My parents were very liberal, allowing me to watch Hammer horror films and turning a blind eye to my girlie magazine collection, so I knew the book must have been bad for them to confiscate it. Of course, this awarded it holy grail status in my eyes, and I wonder if my whole path of a life in pursuit of rare and unusual paperbacks was triggered by this piece of parental intervention. 

I bought Skinhead at Read ‘n Return, a used book store which made its money from the huge selection of skin-mags displayed at the back of the shop—off-limits to the likes of me. It was guarded by a grizzled Alsatian dog the size of a bear. Although the owner was cool, I later heard he sold all sorts of highly dubious material under-the-counter. He also stocked comics, which is why I had started to frequent the place. He would give you half back on your purchase price if you returned the comics for re-sale. The boxes of older returned comics were an absolute treasure-trove to any teenager on a budget.

I purchased my first book outside of my parent’s supervision there—Reign of Hell by Sven Hassel

I have no idea how I knew about this book, but it was part of a fifteen-odd book series purportedly based on true events surrounding a German penal regiment in WW2. With a colourful gallery of rogues, and a strange mish-mash of extreme gore and anti-war preaching, this was the book I fervently pushed into other kid’s hands. It spawned a whole genre in the UK, with any number of English authors adopting Germanic pseudonyms to tell their own gritty stories of German Stormtroopers, with Leo Kessler being the most successful example.  

There’s no way that I could have guessed that four decades later I would be self-publishing a book devoted to these authors.  

You've been editing The Paperback Fanatic since 2007, and your other projects include Pulp Apocalypse, Battling Britons, Hot Lead, Men of Violence, Pulp Horror, The Sleazy Reader, and Monster Maniacs. How did you start as an editor and a writer?

From a young age, I always produced comics and fanzines, which typically never went beyond a single copy and then passed around at school. The first I printed in any quantity and distributed was in the mid-1990s. Dedicated to reviews of exploitation movies, it lasted seven issues, of which the first six were free of charge to anyone sending me a SAE (stamped and addressed envelope). It was intentionally crude and opinionated, with a collage layout of comic panels and movies posters juxtaposed with speech bubbles and headlines from tabloids. I look back now and cringe at the humour and the totally put-on uber-snotty persona I adopted, but at the time it gained something of a cult following.  

I gave it up following a nearly-encounter with the long arm of the law! It’s difficult to summarize in a paragraph, but in the 90s, horror films were the bete-noir of the UK tabloid press, often blamed for some terrible copy-cat crimes. Amongst UK fans of horror movies, there was much trading of copies of European horror films which were not legally available in the UK. In the hysterical atmosphere of 1990s UK, you risked a dawn-raid by Trading Standards and the Police for owning and trading this type of material. This may seem like exaggeration, but the editor of the most popular UK horror film fanzine, Samhain, lost his job as a nursery assistant when the local paper ran an ‘expose’ on him and his literate and considered publication. 

A mate who ran a mail-order distribution service for horror mags, fanzines and collectibles, told me the police had visited him and when they saw my zine, claimed it was a “snuff movie catalogue” and wanted to know where it came from! I published under a pseudonym and never included my personal details in the zine, and my mate played dumb, but as a result, I immediately destroyed my video collection and stopped publishing.

Throughout this time I wasn’t collecting paperbacks, although I was reading contemporary authors like James Ellroy and Michael Slade. One day whilst passing time, I browsed the book section of a charity shop, and stumbled across a handful of New English Library outlaw biker paperbacks, which I had so avidly read in the late 1970s as a teen. I purchased them all.  

I then began searching for information on the publisher and the authors. I expected to find these paperback gems to be well documented in the same way as genre films and comics of the era—with books, web-sites, and magazines dedicated to them. There were none, so I felt I had no choice but to start another fanzine, this time focused on the UK paperbacks I had grown up reading in the 1970s. Hopefully the threat of arrest and tabloid expose’ would be much reduced compared to the murky world of horror film fanzines!

In 2007 I published The Paperback Dungeon, which was 32 pages A4, run off on a photo-copier at work after 5pm when the office was quiet, and available to anyone for a SAE. I immediately noticed people connected with this zine in a way they hadn’t with my previous publications. It also elicited some very personal responses, so I decided to focus on making it into a regular publication. The Paperback Fanatic was then created.  

I am aware that my answers are already far too long, so to try and cut to the quick, about that time I was seriously ill with testicular cancer. During periods of self-reflection, it made me realise how important self-expression through the fanzines was to me, and that I needed to knuckle down to improve my productivity. I suppose I gave away a bollock and in return gained a whole load of focus and motivation. I think I have since published approximately 80 issues of paperback related fanzines, and my appetite and drive is as strong as ever. I can’t imagine a time when I am not self-publishing. 

I never think about a target market for any of my fanzines as they are not commercially driven or an attempt to become a professional writer. I purely write them as the sort of publication I would like to read myself. I often think if someone else had been publishing a zine about vintage paperbacks in the UK, I never would have started The Paperback Fanatic!

What inspired Paperbacks at War? Was there a particular book that made you sit down and decide to assemble this volume?

The honest answer was I had loads of the bloody books sat on a shelf gathering dust, and I wanted to show them off! In the late 90s and early 2000s, during which I had no children, disposable income and time to travel, I started to collect paperbacks and soon reassembled runs of the war authors that I had enjoyed as a teenager. Such as Sven Hassel whom I mentioned earlier, and other authors in the genre of gritty and violent war paperbacks such as Leo Kessler. The idea of gathering all of the covers and authors into one volume appealed to me. 

Also, I am typically attracted to the material which is ignored or looked down on by the mainstream. I am well beyond trying to be hip or cool, and sometimes it’s not to my personal tastes, I just have a genuine fascination as to why western paperbacks or horror films or heavy metal music still endure. War paperbacks and comics just struck me as another example of that, with people having strong opinions on the genre, which wasn’t always matched by reality. Every time the likes of the Sven Hassel books were mentioned on a Facebook page connected with vintage paperbacks they created a stream of memories and anecdotes from readers, so I knew there was still an ongoing fascination which would support a publication like Paperbacks at War.  

What is the range of historical wars/conflicts covered in this book? How far back and how recent do the entries cover?

Pretty exclusively 20th century conflict, and with a leaning towards WWII, although WWI and Vietnam are well represented. I was worried that it would result in a certain “sameness” to the contents, but there are 20-odd contributors all with individual voices, and the books they covered ranged from literary through to trash. (The latter mainly from me!) For instance, one reviewer is still in a US Airborne division, so was able to compare reality with the books he reviewed, which I found fascinating. Plus, as well as paperbacks, there are comics and pulps reviewed, which further diversifies the mix.

Were there any wars/conflicts that were more represented than others? Any that you were surprised weren't better represented?

I would have liked to have covered more in the way of pre-20th century conflict, such as the Napoleonic war, which is a conflict that fascinates me. And less a period of conflict, but war at sea is under-represented in the book in my opinion, especially as naval adventure is an enduringly popular genre. I was relieved that the book wasn’t flooded with the Germans-as-anti-heroes genre represented by Sven Hassel as although that was my starting point, ultimately it would have made the book too samey, and American readers would probably not have shared that flush of nostalgia that UK readers would have experienced. 

Did you notice any trends in how war novels were written, and how the genre has changed over time? For example, how would a Gold Medal war novel from the 50s differ from one written in the 80s?

Certainly the 70s novels were much grittier and explicit than the 50s and 60s, and perhaps more conscious of class and challenging of authority. I explore the possible cultural influences in an article in Paperbacks at War and how they resulted in different books in the UK and the US. In short, the UK had the school of desperate German tank soldiers serving in a penal regiment genre, and the US had a school of hard-bitten veteran sergeants leading greenhorn recruits.

After editing this collection, what were the biggest discoveries to you? Anything in particular you are most excited to read?

For me it was a series of books by Alan White, all of which were riffs on the Dirty Dozen on a suicide mission theme. But apparently White had served as a commando on behind-enemy-lines missions during WW2, and as a result, the books have an air of authenticity about them. Rarely do I lose myself in a book, but I certainly did in White’s writing, and he is second to none in communicating tension and the mind-set of an effective secret operative. Highly recommended for any fan of the war genre.  

Is Michael Hughes's Scumbags (1986) really that bad? The title had me so excited, and then I read your review and it seemed disappointing.

That is exactly how I felt! So the review did the trick if the review acted as a warning. Maybe if title hadn’t led me to expect some gloriously tasteless romp, I would have been more forgiving. But I am in no hurry to revisit the scumbags! 

Seeing all the covers inside is great! Are these all from your collection? And do you have any particular favorites?

Most of the covers are from my own collection, which is somewhere in the region of 12k paperbacks in a double-garage. Many people don’t realise that the images you typically see on-line are of insufficient quality for printing. Of the covers I featured in Paperbacks at War, I think it is the impact of seeing a series of covers for one series that I enjoyed the most. Tony Masero and David McAllister were two artists who worked on the Leo Kessler books, and their illustrations for the Otto Stahl and Wotan series are especially effective. I also like the art of Mike Codd, who employed a distinctive blocky style of painting and a washed out palette which works very well for war scenes.  

What's up next for you? Any chance for a Paperbacks at War volume 2 down the road? 

At this stage a second volume seems unlikely as I scratched the itch with this one. I am not moving too far away from the subject though, as I am turning Battling Britons into an ongoing title about British war and adventure comics. If anyone types my name into Amazon, they will hopefully see a list of the zines, and that will grow over the years.  

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