Next Big Thing

This questionnaire has been doing the rounds amongst unpublished/recently published writers in Scotland, and thanks to Kirsti Wishart I’ve been tagged on the list, so here are my answers below:

What’s the title of your latest story?

The last thing I finished was a novel called ‘In Borderlands’.

Where did the idea for the story (or, in this case, novel) come from?

It came mostly from a single image that just popped into my head many years ago, of a man tied to a tree and waiting for something terrible to happen. (In the end, this image doesn’t appear in the book at all, but it was the source for everything that followed.) In addition, I was interested in the idea of someone failing to be punished for something terrible they had done, and how you would deal with that if you didn’t particularly care. (Again, this doesn’t really feature in the completed book. The ideas that get the ball rolling are rarely what make it to the final cut.)

What genre does your story fall under?

Although I don’t think of it as a ‘genre’, I’m aware that plenty of people do these days – so, it could be part of that much-maligned category called ‘literary fiction.’ I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ‘experimental’, but it’s broadly non-realist.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie?

I think that one of the most pernicious trends of recent cultural history is the idea that no work can be fully validated until it has been converted into a film. Cinema, for purely monetary reasons, is seen as the apex of cultural achievement, and books and comics (especially) are rarely seen as anything other than templates or rough drafts for the movies. No one would think that a novelisation of a film is anything other than money-grubbing trash, but you rarely hear people saying the opposite. Not everything could or should be filmed. It’s one of the reasons why poetry, as a form, will last longer than anything else; because it resists this kind of cultural appropriation. But saying all that, Werner Herzog would be an obvious choice to play one of the characters, and whichever generic British actor in his thirties happens to see the script would do for the main character – the blander the better.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?

“Nathan Nixon is content with his solitary, directionless life, but when he is accused of manslaughter he finds himself on a strange journey from the Scottish Borders to a collapsing North African state, in the company of vagabonds, mercenaries, and a dangerous crew of guerilla filmmakers. Entering an ambiguous zone between countries, between dreams and reality, and even between life and death, Nathan eventually finds himself back where he started – only to discover that his experiences have changed him beyond recognition.”

That’s two sentences I know, but you could replace the full stop with a semi-colon I suppose? Anyway, sounds good, doesn’t it? I’d definitely read it …

Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hopefully represented by an agency – I’ve just started that life-affirming process of trying to get an agent and/or publisher interested. Watch this space. (Of course, if any agent or publisher is watching this space, then please get in touch! You’d save me a lot of time and bother.)

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

Just over three years. It was originally an insane and unwieldy 200,000 words long, but I’ve managed to scale it back to around 150,000. It’s fairly long, but not overwhelmingly so.

What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

I found this question quite difficult to answer, not because the book is so wonderful and unique that it defies comparison (which, obviously, it does), but because you try to block out all other influences or analogues while you’re writing, and to make comparisons after the fact seems a bit artificial. Anyway, it has vague affinities with Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’, Jennifer Egan’s work, a superb novel by Steven Amsterdam called ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’, the poetry of John Burnside, and, in a strange and not immediately obvious way, the fiction of Geoff Dyer. I think these affinities are mostly tonal and structural, rather than anything to do with subject matter, and obviously I have to add the disclaimer that I’m not trying to say my work is anywhere near as good. And what’s odd is that these are all writers I started reading only after I was well embarked on the book; they’re not necessarily influences on my writing as a whole (of which I would include the great JG Ballard, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding, VS Naipaul, and, again in a strange and not immediately obvious way, Denis Johnson).

Who or what inspired you to write this story?

I’m wholly against the idea of ‘inspiration’, if what the term means is a generative source coming from outside the writer, forcing him or her to write. (The definition of the word, after all, is, ‘to breathe life into.’) What makes me write in general is some kind of weird inner compulsion that I wouldn’t dare to analyse, and a relentless, all-consuming obsession with words and language. At the same time, I like to think that it’s possible and necessary to convey or communicate, through language, the simultaneously incredibly profound and incredibly boring life experience of the average human being; in particular, to deal with that old existential, absurdist question, How do you find value in a world without meaning? (But funny.) Some kind of combination of the two inspired this book, as well as general notions of chance and consequence. There was also a sequence of images I had in my head that I wanted to link together, for reasons that defy explanation.

What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

If you like hyenas, then this book features hyenas.

What’s next?

I’m working on a second novel, provisionally called ‘Cemetery Songs’, about two poets meeting in the ruins of a bombed-out city. Thematically, it’s very broadly about the oppositions between civil and vatic poetry, or lyricism and modernism, and about the way culture is artificially constructed and used towards political ends. (But funny.)

So that’s that! According to the chain letter blog tagging rules, I have to pass this on to five more writers, who will each pass it on to five more etc etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know five other writers who have blogs, I only know three!

And one of them doesn’t even have a blog, so this time next week I will graciously grant him space on mine to answer the same set of questions – he is, of course, the great Martin MacInnes, who has been published in the Edinburgh Review, who co-edits Free State with me, and who is writing about evolutionary biology, Ascension Island and disappearance, amongst many other subjects.

Second is Glasgow-based graphic artist/writer Coll Hamilton, who is co-writer/artist of the online graphic novel ‘Amber and Chelsea’, and whose work has recently been shown as part of the Royal Scottish Academy’s Open Exhibition.

Third is Hannah Renowden – journalist, blogger, and, most importantly, contributor to Free State.

(Neither Coll or Hannah have got back to me on this yet, so very possibly by tagging them like this I might spur them to action. Or not.)

Edit: I can also now add to the list my good colleague Rosie Phenix-Walker, graduate of the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing MA programme, and ace bookseller, who writes a blog here!

Enjoy, and see you back here next week for Martin’s answers.


One thought on “Next Big Thing

  1. Pingback: The Next Big Thing Part II: Martin MacInnes | Richard W. Strachan's Blog

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