Interview with a good old-fashioned troublemaker

Initially I encountered X through a random assignment via the automated system on a writers’ site. Unlike most of the thousand or so other site users whose work I’d critiqued, he was breaking the rules of how to write publisher-friendly fiction yet wished to keep doing so. Though unschooled in the clichés peddled by handbooks, workshops and tertiary courses, this solitary outsider had instead been reading widely. A provocative correspondence ensued, via email and airmail – a cultural exchange that’s lasted nearly three years and rocks to this day…

Observer of Times: Over the years, I’ve noticed that most writers – of fiction, at least – appear to be writing for readers not unlike themselves. So, from reading a few anonymous pages it’s possible to guess an author’s gender, class, level of education, and even their age group. Yet when I first read your work, knowing nothing but your nationality, I nailed just one attribute: picked you for a Gen X-er but only suspected you might be male. Do you have a concept of an audience for your writing and, if so, how would you define or describe it?

Gen X-er: I like the idea of trying to give people what they didn’t know existed, and that sort of an approach rather precludes having a definite audience in mind. As a reader, what I’m always hoping to discover is work that subverts the conventions in some way. I’m not alone in this. There are other picky, adventurous readers out there. That’s who I like to think I’m writing for – though of course my primary allegiance is to my characters.

O: Your idea of trying to give readers what they don’t yet know exists (and to which I also subscribe) deviates from (to put it mildly) the model most publishers use for profit. Devoting the bulk of their marketing budget to formulaic escapism (and at frequent, predictable intervals offering a top-up), they need – and therefore breed – passive, conformist readers.

Which writers have most inspired you, and why? And did they have trouble getting their work published?

X: I can pinpoint what sparked my interest in fiction: non-linear bombsite narratives. The Cornelius stories by Michael Moorcock – and others – were what I found I could relate to in my early teens. Those novels and short stories (and cartoon strips) were contemporary, urban, anarchic, funny, strange and yet familiar (or vice versa). The city I lived in was pitted with thirty-year-old bombsites; it wasn’t difficult to imagine the characters from The English Assassin visiting a weapons dump near the school I went to. From the new wavers I was led, predictably enough perhaps, on to Burroughs and to the realization that a novel can be a type of bizarre sketch show. The writers I respect are seldom, if ever, literary purists.

Modernists, postmodernists, mythologizers, fabulists, surrealists, whatever the convenient tag, I appreciate writers who draw from a diverse range of sources, adopting and adapting techniques from various 20th-century art movements, from cinema, pop culture, television, info tech, any new advance fiction can’t afford to ignore.

Moorcock, Ballard and Angela Carter didn’t, as far as I know, have major struggles getting their work published. Or at least they didn’t in the 1970s, an era when publishing seems to have been more foetidly healthy than it is today. (I only learned this recently but Alice in Wonderland was self-published. It did okay, I hear.)

O: In a note Moorcock wrote on his Cornelius stories in ’76, he says that part of his original intention was ‘to “liberate” the narrative; to leave it open to the reader’s interpretation as much as possible – to involve the reader in such a way as to bring their own imagination into play’. From what I’ve read of your work, I’d guess that’s part of your intention. If so, and given the growing challenge of finding active readers today, how do you know if you’ve left your narrative open enough to their interpretation?

X: You guess right, and the truth is I’m not always sure whether I’ve negotiated a successful path between the too obvious and the too obscure. But why not go all out, run the risk of alienating some readers and trusting that you’ll intrigue some of the, dare I say, more discriminating ones? For me it comes down to imagery. Take an image as sharp as, say, de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. There, the real work’s done and each viewer’s free to come up with an interpretation to satisfy themselves. Chances are it will then change and develop over time. Interpretations have a habit of doing just that.

Gut feeling is also crucial. A writer can’t go too far wrong when she seizes upon what’s surprised her most while immersed in a project. That said, I’ve had reactions of polar extremity to the same story, incomprehension on the one hand, ‘I know where this comes from’ on the other. One reader’s scary neighbourhood turns out to be another reader’s backyard.

O: You recently identified your strengths (rather modestly) as ‘comedy and casual grotesquery’. Others I can think of include your feel for the surreal conveyed through inventive turns of phrase that reveal the known world in strange new ways, which de Chirico does so hauntingly with paint. As a fellow former art student, I’m partial to comparisons between visual and literary vocabularies. But a painting can be viewed in its entirety in an instant, while all but the briefest flash fictions demand an investment of at least a few minutes, with some tomes even taking months. As a writer who (like me) has worked full-time on fiction for 20+ years, what have you done so far to find readers and get feedback?

X: Early on, I’d submit first drafts to publishers – entire manuscripts, no copyediting. I sure knew how not to do it. Nevertheless, the first MS I submitted was considered, briefly, for publication by an up and coming (now defunct) indie imprint. I am happy to report that the deal, the ghost of one at least, came to nothing. The embarrassment of having my name tied to the dross I was hammering out at the time might have thrown cold water on my desire to write. I had short stories published in small press magazines, and I dipped a toe into the cyber paddling pool of a writers’ online community. I’d recommend it for the small number of serious writers you get to correspond with. Lately, I admit, I’ve not felt motivated to seek outlets for my stuff. There’s something off-putting about the relative ease with which it’s now possible to have work published as an e-book. As you’ve said, everyone’s a writer now, published on social media. Access for all, great, I’m nothing if not an indie DIY fan at heart. Only its downside is a typo-polluted, unedited ocean of ordure I’d sooner avoid catching a whiff of. Or add to its stink, for that matter. Laugh.

O: Besides such obvious parallels as a narrow escape from premature indie publication, some short works in print, and exposure to wildly divergent feedback through the writers’ site where we met, it seems we share certain values and attitudes. Have I mentioned how much I deplore the growing incidence of humans viewing other humans solely as potential consumers? (Oz writer Stephen Wright aptly refers to ‘mutant, vultured, panopticised supercapitalism’ in a call for subversion.) And whether our capitalist system creates or results from narcissism, literary culture has changed radically in recent years. Originality, quality and depth can’t figure when today’s author reportedly needs to spend 90% of their time on marketing, not writing, to succeed. No longer can we hide and let the text speak for itself. Once upon a time, publishers handled publicity, leaving us to mine our imaginations. Now our role has been turned inside out. Being read depends on being observed, first of all by the writer: a split. A state towards which writers already tend, it may be a precondition for creating some, if not all, kinds of fiction. But brand building is more restrictive.

And as writers who can’t or won’t conform to the new cultural norm by using (and having our data mined by) corporate-geared social media, we find ourselves with few (if any) readers: a high price to pay for a kind of freedom. But, in 140 characters or less – just stirring – what do you think you gain by not joining the herd?

X: Well, you hang on to the designation: writer. That’s important. If you spend 90% of your time on marketing you’re not a writer. You’re ‘in marketing’. You’re a self-publicist with a cheesy photo grin. You’ve turned yourself into an easily digestible fiction – e.g.: ‘from rags to riches’, ‘I survived’, ‘phew, what a lot of drugs I took’ etc – to sell fiction. What you become is a cheerleader for material success. ‘Hey guys, I sold my zombie sex tales for $$$s and now I own this luxury yacht! Buy my Ten Steps to Successful Authorship and you can be like me. (Please be like me. I own a yacht but I’m still lonely.)’ What kind of a writer needs a bloody yacht?! In my book (okay, MS), a writer cannot help but set herself against the norms. She’s a good old-fashioned troublemaker. Asking awkward questions and making people feel uncomfortable is what she’s all about. (Whoops, that’s over 140 characters…) What you gain from not joining the herd is, above all else, time in which to refine your troublemaking. Time is oh so much more important than amassing cash, self-aggrandizement or shopping. Lack of decent publishing outlets and rejection only sharpens you up. A positive spin, there. Also, it’s worth remembering that having something published can be an anticlimactic experience. You can find yourself thinking I’m sure that isn’t quite what I meant to say.

The bottom line is this: Fernando Pessoa died in relative obscurity and left a trunk full of his writings. Pessoa’s a genius who gains more readers with each passing year. Conversely, there are individuals – you can’t call them writers – who have had a ‘publishing phenomenon’, and have made $$$s. In a less money-mad world, they’d get a horsewhipping. And nobody in the future is going to read them because the era in which they fit so snugly will have vanished. …

O: Your mini pitches – ‘I survived’ etc. – sound like formulas for top-selling memoirs. But spending most of our time on self-promotion won’t make us rich – unless we can outshine or outwit the competition.

It’s true that publication can be anticlimactic – and not always because the author falls short of their own standards. Take one writer I met, whose debut novel sank without a trace. He left his manuscript with the editor while he spent the advance on time out to write his second novel. When he finally saw the end product he barely recognised it. The young editor had slashed 100 pages plus a main character. And if he’d stuck around to negotiate, they’d have had a power struggle. No art dealer does that to the work of a painter (though much can go wrong in the process of framing or hanging) – which raises some interesting questions re what readers want or expect from a narrative.

Pessoa’s a fascinating case (not least because experts can’t agree on how to sequence his fragments). Do you think something similar could occur in today’s world (maybe even an online version)? Or has the value we place on literature changed? Does today’s reader seek anything more than diversion, entertainment?

X: In our 2-for-1 cliché giveaway: Stranger things have happened – but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The internet, it worries me. Despite its surface flashiness, I have more faith in the old trunk and the 1000-year-old landfill site as repositories for litter, literature and for litter that through some strange alchemical transmutation is finally lauded as literature. Get a hard copy. A major systems meltdown or the Hiroshima of cyber-attacks could, conceivably, obliterate the communications landscape. Get hard copies. Invest, maybe, in a sturdy trunk. Because if Pessoa teaches us nothing else…

The value we place on literature – no, I don’t believe that has changed. Not for committed, lifelong readers it hasn’t. They still hope to see the world illuminated in unheralded, magical ways. (Yep, I used the word ‘magical’.)

The sheer volume of diverting ephemera, of dumb entertainment, makes it seem otherwise. We are living through a play-it-safe period, not only in the literary sphere, in most of them, terrorism and reckless gambling with eco ruin excepted.

(Look at car design. New cars all look the same these days. They all have the same rounded chassis. More often than not they’re shiny metallic grey. ‘Don’t notice me!’ Though it’s hard not to when they’re screaming it.)

However, with TV boxed sets offering what the Victorian triple-decker novel once did – the plot twists and big reveals we all know are coming, even if we are a bit sketchy on the details – I don’t see why more writers don’t grasp the opportunity to short-circuit expectations, to try to do other things. That’s the tricky part – tricky but fun.

O: Shouldn’t the internet worry us all – if only because we’ve come to depend on it for so much in such a short time? Without it, you and I (and countless others) might never have met. And convenience is addictive.

The thing is, when you talk about ‘committed, lifelong readers’ who ‘still hope to see the world illuminated in unheralded, magical ways’, I’m sure many Harry Potter tragics would relate, even if you or I think J K Rowling – who, unlike Pessoa, rates an entry in my dictionary; yes, there’s nothing between pessimistic and pest! – exemplifies the play-it-safe mentality you mention.

You won’t find JG Ballard, Italo Calvino or Angela Carter in my dictionary either. And since it’s the standard reference for Oz editors – and writers – maybe that’s a clue to why writers don’t defy expectations? Though how do we know more writers aren’t trying to do other things, like us, yet can’t get past the gatekeepers? Or are most writers, like most readers (or zombie film extras) herd animals?

X: The many positives of the internet are offset by its breathtaking toxicity. Read some of the comments on internet message boards and one could be forgiven for believing we’d perfected a technology for exposing users’ character flaws. Did its inventors anticipate that? Or did it take them by surprise? If the internet did go on the permanent blink I reckon we’d cope. The baby boomers would. (It’d give them a warm post-war frisson.) You and I, and most other Gen X tykes, would. For us it would mean a return to the slow club of letters and postcards. For the millennials, though, it would feel like the end of their world, and the clinics would overflow with nerve-racked youngsters cut off from their fix.

J K Rowling rates an entry in your dictionary? That just goes to show that money talks. The gatekeepers are usually bean counters as well.

I should perhaps have put ‘unheralded, mysterious ways’. The writer I had in mind when I used the word ‘magical’ was in fact – no, not J K – David Foster Wallace. He used that very word while talking about mind-to-mind experiential transference via the printed page. (And he even smiles. It’s on YouTube. He didn’t grimace the way he had a habit of doing during interviews, as if what he was saying was half killing him with embarrassment. It’s rather a heartening moment.) I didn’t mean to conjure up – groan – any Disneyesque wand-waving malarkey.

J K Rowling’s cobbling together of road-tested favourites – as in, Tom Brown’s Wizardy Dracula Schooldays – was heralded, by bean counters, rather than unheralded, I’d argue. Yet no one can deny that J K got masses of kids reading. Some of those Potter fans will go on to read DFW, or Lautreamont (dark magic), or whoever. Or already have. (Okay, I must admit to being a tad sniffy about adult Potter fans. Read something aimed at grownups, why don’t you. I’m not consistent, though. I see no wrong in anyone of whatever age reading Lewis Carroll. And everyone should goof off now and then. It’s good for you. But those adult Potter fans, they should know better…)

It’s funny but I suspect that I’m probably more pessimistic than you about life in general and less pessimistic about the future of lit. Is there something in that? Hey, it’s a lot darker where I live. I have to try and stay upbeat about something.

The problem, as I see it, is writers and their publishers chasing a dead cert payday. Sound financial bland out is all you’ll get from trying to second-guess readers’ expectations. No, no, no, Observer of Times, writers aren’t herd animals. They’re solitary cats or lone wolves. (Maybe some of the commercial ones are still solitary cats or lone wolves at heart.) It’s just that most of the solitary cats are sleeping, and most of the lone wolves have lost their teeth.

The strange ones and the one-offs are still out there. They always are.

Getting past the bean counting gatekeepers? I’m not sure what you say to people who are only attuned to the song of the cash register. Um, why are you so boring?

O: If the internet got knocked out, a fair few boomers might die; we Westerners rely on it in ways we aren’t even aware of, and humans tend to revert to infantile helplessness with relatively little incitement. But we’ll get to the topic of your optimism in a minute…

A thriller writer/reader recently asked me what authors I like, and, on googling most of them, discovered that Foster Wallace was ‘one of the most influential authors of the twentieth century’. Will J K Rowling leave behind such a legacy? Of course Lewis Carroll’s in a different league. And 19th-century children, despite being seen and not heard, became adults earlier. Take Mary Shelley: could any twenty-year-old publish a novel like Frankenstein today?

Now, how do you figure you’re more pessimistic about life than I am? I’m the person who thinks corporate-funded AI will render our species obsolete if Earth doesn’t get too hot for us first. And the future of lit is in algorithms, just like CGI and animation are replacing flesh and blood actors on film – pessimism or realism? But don’t let me rain on your parade; you must get more than enough rain in Coventry.

When referring to herd animals I was using the term ‘writer’ broadly, thinking of every blogger, every fanfic and e-book author – because hasn’t the definition of writer, as we might use it, changed?

I just reread a 1991 essay by Oz author Peter Goldsworthy, who seems down on the most influential Modernists – especially Woolf, but even Kafka and Borges – because they lost sight of story:

Such elements as story, or metaphoric resonance, are of minor importance. This seems to me an exquisite decadence, the decadence perhaps of those who read too much, whose palates become blunted, and need an ever-increasing fix of the new, the different, the tangy.

Personally, I find this argument lame. Sales figures show that hoards of romance and fantasy readers not only read heaps; they continue to crave more of the same. But I’d like to hear your retort to his championing of story as natural, ‘an emotional, often cathartic experience’, which is ‘primarily a process of transport, and rapture’. (I suspect Goldsworthy might be left no less cold by Foster Wallace and the postmodernists…)

X: While the internet and infantilization go together like peaches and cream – more thoughts on this fascinating subject – there are, as ever, contending forces at play, and they are a hardy crop those baby boomers. Some of them have remained stubbornly unimpressed by the web. One can use it to send Auntie Myrtle birthday greetings, ‘but I sent her a card as well because a card is so much nicer. You can keep a card.’ Arguably, the new tech that had the most profound effect on their generation’s behaviour was the Dansette and collection of 45s. Imagination is crucial here, as one sits and dreams the Beatles. The same can’t be said for the internet. Someone is being paid to imagine for you, and doing a slack-arsed job of it.

My guess is J K Rowling’s legacy will be similar to Enid Blyton’s – a sort of heritage blight that hangs around like the smell of damp wallpaper for decades too long. A blighton, if you will.

At least your brand of pessimism, or realism, admits the possibility of change. My fear is that when the robots take over I’ll be one of the humans who won’t be set free. I’ll be left slaving in a 19th-century theme park – a minimum wage prison – where the physical toil is no playact. (The Industrial Revolution was a mistake. The internal combustion engine can do one as well … all those funny little tin boxes on wheels as containers for the ego, and the only gridlocked trip there is to go on ends with psychic death in a garden centre.)

(Rain on my parade? That’s unlikely. I’d never have one in the first place. Mass gatherings of any kind make me uneasy. Besides, you’re more like a summer rain of thought that leaves me feeling refreshed and ready for a bit of a think, and indeed a rethink of what I thought I think. Emoticon: Wink.)

Getting back to those contending forces, the antithesis of lit’s future in algorithms will, I’m sure, produce works of signal-jamming disruption. Every time I scan the shelves in my local Waterstones I’m able to instantly dismiss most of the stuff on offer. The cover art alone tells me I’d be wasting my time. And yet I did find a copy of John Hartley Williams’ Mystery in Spiderville in there one day. To discover work as singular as that, wow! At the margins is where the truly interesting things happen – always at the margins.

(I’m not sure I agree that CGI and animation are replacing flesh and blood actors. I’m too lazy to research the subject, but my bet is the ratio of live action to animated pictures hasn’t changed much since the ’60s. For each animated Disney film I saw as a child I’d see perhaps nine live action flicks. For one thing, animated features took, and still take, longer to make than live action films. All hail the mighty ’puter, but it isn’t up to the task of replacing the human face just yet. CGI is a fashion, as was ‘plastic reality’ before it. Both can now look equally risible, but ‘plastic reality’ had ‘body’, it suggested weight, whereas obvious CGI often looks flimsy. It works best when used in subtle ways viewers fail to notice: changing words on signage without having to hire a signwriter to come and get his paintbrushes out, for example.)

Ah, yes, the Just Do It ‘writer’, busy, busy, busy in every department. They run their own e-business, and writing is just one of the many fun things they do to be an ‘impactful creative’. Of course I’d like to see those fluffy pestilential dweebs chased by rabid dogs.

Hmm, Peter Goldsworthy – going purely on the lines you quoted – seems like a stick-in-the-mud to me. If someone describes themselves as ‘a storyteller first, a writer second’ I think I’m about to be dragged through a take on a tale I’ve heard countless times before, and I’ll find little in the weft and warp of their prose to surprise and delight me. I don’t even agree that Woolf, Kafka, Borges or Joyce, who I’m adding to the list, lost sight of story. They just recognized its limits. Got bored. Tried new approaches. And what’s so bad about a splash of decadence from time to time? (The clichéd signposting of sure and certain cultural decline is a supine Roman in a toga eating grapes. More decadence, say I. More grapes!) Stories don’t grow on trees. (Money does, weirdly: ‘Who’ll buy my apples?’) Stories are no more or less ‘natural’ than any other concept – money, ice cream, death camps etc. What we as a species seem to be is colonisers of the unnatural. Human beings are really strange. ‘Transport, and rapture’, yes, put my name down for some of that. Those things are there by the sackful in Ulysses. I should point out that my route into postmodernism was far from academic. Bugs Bunny introduced the idea to me. Bugs getting into an argument with the cartoonist who’s drawn him… Then there was the nod and the wink of later episodes of The Avengers, silly Cold War spy-fi. The subtext here was: Look, we know this is nonsense. You know this is nonsense. Let’s have fun with it. You’re back at work or school tomorrow. – So, I have no fear of the postmodern. (Maybe there’s a drop of French blood in my veins?)

I see Goldsworthy’s ‘natural’ storyteller sat at the campfire with the village faithful (dull boobs some of them. Nice people, but … you know). I used to love his stories. Now they leave me cold. I’m behind a tree at the edge of the clearing. ‘Psst. Kids,’ I whisper to the other restless souls who pass by. ‘There is more harm in the village than is dreamt of.’

O: What an ideal note to end on, X. Thanks for the conversation and the Mystery in Spiderville recommendation. (Read a few pages and it knocked my socks off.)

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