I’m incredibly pleased to have had a story published in the new issue of Interzone (#259). It’s a superb magazine that’s been going for over 30 years and has published some of the best science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction (for want of a better phrase) writers in that period, including JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Jeff Noon and many, many others. There’s a small part of me that feels vaguely like an interloper, an intruder moving across territory I wouldn’t normally cover, but if I say that my story is only nominally science fictional that isn’t in the least meant to be a slight on the genre. Ballard after all is one of the touchstone writers in my reading life, and there are many more purveyors of sci-fi and fantasy who have meant as much to me as a reader as more prominent or ‘respectable’ literary figures like VS Naipaul or William Golding (and dealing as he does with an anti-humanistic, quasi-theological worldview with an incredibly long perspective, what is Golding at heart but a fantasy writer of a kind?) The kind of fiction I’m interested in writing – non-realist, uninterested in contemporary society, yoked together more by image than narrative, set in unspecified locales with characters designed to illustrate tropes as much as personalities – could be seen as another kind of fantasy in itself. In which case, with this particular magazine, perhaps I should feel perfectly at home?
As I mentioned in my last blog post, when I answered these questions, I’m now going to host my friend and colleague Martin MacInnes’ response to the Next Big Thing questionnaire. Martin has had fiction, non-fiction, and a hybrid version of the two, published in The Edinburgh Review and online at the Human Genre Project, and is easily the most talented writer I know. Here are his answers:
What is the title of your latest book?
Where did the idea for the book come from?
A line in a psychology report written in the 1970s. The writer was talking about signals of severe mental disturbance, and claimed that certain changes in human brain-state are detectable, via scent, by rats. The particular line was about a desire to escape the body manifesting as a fascination with hands and feet, ‘terminal peninsula of the human body.’
I began writing fictional interviews with colleagues of an anonymous office worker who has vanished/become insane/ascended/committed suicide. These interviews became extremely digressive, and I used the premise – a search for an impossibly missing person – as an excuse to launch stories and experiment with many different kinds of writing, all really about the interesting difficulty of defining life and of documenting a life, ‘capturing’ a person. I wanted to sort of imply that this was an alternative world in which death was impossible – as, in this world, it imaginatively is – hence the ridiculous lengths gone to in the search. I tied the search to stories around the geography and history of a strange island I’d visited in the South Atlantic, ‘Ascension’ – making full use of the not so very discreet allusion in its name.
What genre does your book fall under?
Science-fiction (in both senses), travel writing, autobiography, natural history, even ‘literary fiction’ – in no order of priority.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?
The main character would never be seen face-on, so it could be many different people, or no-one. For the characters who make up the stories I would like sets of people who looked similar or even related to each other.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
An extraordinary and inexplicable vanishing leads to a search spanning deserts, seas and the polar south, the deep past and the far future, astronauts and ship-wrecked sailors, as an investigating company attempts to establish what has happened to a man who has gone.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m trying for an agent and publisher; self-publishing successes seem predominantly thrillers or genre-work. I wouldn’t want to publish a book without the support of an experienced editor, and I also, possibly pathetically, could do with the professional validation.
How long did it take you to write the first draft?
I’ve written the book twice, with two different plots, so about three years, with some parts drafted many times. I scrapped the first half of the original version, and ‘wrote over’ the rest of it with a new plot.
What other books would you compare it to within your genre?
In popular writing, maybe ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell, ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald,, ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin and ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie. The books that most influenced me when writing it were ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector, ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Daniel Dennett, and most of all J.G. Ballard’s short stories and interviews.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Mainly the feeling that time is always running out, and that the world is stranger and more various than I’ve regularly been able to express. Specifically, I’ve felt it’s important to write about absolutely natural, routine processes – the way the body makes itself, the slow radiation of species, two people sitting in a cafe – in a way that gives them all the imagined wonder of space exploration. I think too much writing – especially ‘literary fiction’ – is limited in its curiosity by being anthropocentric and dualist. The mind can be ‘nothing but’ an organ working, a piece in cooperation with the rest of the body and the organic world, and yet still without significant limitation.
What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
Quite a lot of it is ‘true’, in the sense of having happened.
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.
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.
I watched an excellent Arena documentary about William Golding last night, (which can be seen on iPlayer here). Golding was an immensely complicated and conflicted person, and I have become increasingly interested in him since reading John Carey’s biography a couple of years ago. Ironically subtitled ‘The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies’, Carey’s book demonstrates just how varied and powerful was Golding’s achievement, and how, in a career that eventually gained him the Nobel Prize, he could still feel in some way overlooked or dismissed. The Arena documentary drew on Golding’s unpublished, million-word journals and dream diaries, and they revealed a man clearly tormented by his own sense of wickedness and by a wider understanding of human depravity and man’s capacity for evil. His dreams seem to have abounded with images of violence and torture, and although from a young age Golding was clearly an imaginative person, it is also clear that his terrible experiences in the Second World War dislocated him profoundly. ‘Lord of the Flies’ may remain his most famous exploration of mankind’s innate brutality and how fragile is the veneer of civilisation that keeps that brutality in check, but its fame has tended to obscure his other books, which offer an equally disturbing vision in a variety of stark and original forms. I remember reading ‘Darkness Visible’ and, after closing the book, feeling more or less ashamed to be a human being.
Golding was essentially a theological (rather than a religious) writer, and his theme was Original Sin. For Golding, this manifested itself in mankind’s limitless facility in pain and suffering, although it would be a mistake to dismiss him, as many did, as a fundamentally pessimistic writer. The act of writing those books was optimistic in itself, and Golding’s novels generally contain a redemptive figure who, although defeated, indicates the different paths available to the human animal. Another writer who dealt with a similar theme over a much more wayward career was Anthony Burgess. At the moment, I’m reading his longest and greatest novel, ‘Earthly Powers’, a panoramic view of the 20th century as experienced by one character, a mediocre and highly successful novelist called Kenneth Toomey (who is clearly based on W. Somerset Maugham). It would be wrong to call it subtext as it’s all up front in the narrative, but Burgess also addresses himself to theological concerns in this book, as Toomey’s path crosses again and again with his brother in law, Carlo Campanati, a man destined to become Pope. Burgess’s interest in original sin finds its clearest expression in the scenes set during the aftermath of the Holocaust, when mankind fell about as low as it could go. In a fascinating reversal though, Burgess, in this book and in others, sees original sin almost as a protective carapace for humanity; or, rather, that to dismiss it puts mankind on the even more dangerous path towards human perfectibility. Burgess roots this tendency in the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century AD. Pelagius, a monk who denied the transmission of original sin and believed that God’s grace was not necessary for the performance of good works, was eventually banished from Rome and denounced, but his ideas live on in many of our arguments for free will. For Burgess, one of those lapsed cradle Catholics who never lost the dialectical cut and thrust of a Jesuitical education, neo-Pelagianism was the most dangerous ideology in the world, and he saw its traces in Soviet and Maoist communism, in Nazism, and in any secular political ideology that thought it could coerce people into being better. Over about 300,000 words, with immense stylistic verve, ‘Earthly Powers’ parses these ideas down about as far as they can go.
This is all strong stuff, and makes the usual thematic and stylistic run of contemporary literature seem pretty thin. Crucially, as a reader you don’t actually have to buy into any of it; you do not need to share Golding’s or Burgess’s ideas on what makes a human being capable of evil or ‘sinful’ acts, but you do have to accept that this is one of the animating concerns of their fiction. This is what got them to the desk in the morning, and if there’s one thing I go to novels for, it’s to see the private idiosyncrasies and obsessions of a writer given free rein, in the freest artistic form there is.
Not long after I started writing this blog, I reviewed another documentary, about British novelists ‘in their own words’. I argued that the episode which concentrated on the immediate post-war novelists gave the lie to a common assumption that it was only when the Amis/McEwan/Barnes/Rushdie quartet imported the lessons of the big American post-war novelists (Bellow/Mailer/Roth/Updike) in the late 1970s and 1980s that English fiction moved away from a narrow concern with Hampstead dinner parties and the upper middle classes. The example of William Golding, Anthony Burgess and, in particular, JG Ballard, demonstrates how partial a reading that is of English literature in this period. Three more original writers could hardly be imagined, their concerns as far away from Hampstead dinner parties as could be conceived. (Who did write those Hampstead dinner party novels?) Their writing tried to dig up the very roots of what it meant to be human; if Golding and Burgess were haunted by mankind’s fall from the Garden of Eden, then Ballard was fascinated by what would have happened to the Garden after mankind was gone.
These three writers obviously have unassailable reputations and are in no way obscure, but Golding was right when he felt himself overlooked in some way, and Burgess felt a similar sense of rejection from the ‘literary establishment’ (whatever that is), even though he was a best-seller and critically respected. Because they fit into no easy narrative, and because they don’t belong to any definable or short-hand group or generation, it can be easy to forget how important their work is. Ballard is probably the more influential of the three, and has good claim to be the most important writer from Britain since 1945, but I would like to think that they all provide a slightly neglected model of what is possible in fiction, how it can bury itself in the visceral and spiritual essences of human life and nature, and how those mythical Hampstead dinner parties never had as many attendants as you thought.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the works of JG Ballard should have a look at this website, www.ballardian.com. In particular, take a look at the remarkable short films on the site by Paul Williams. Based in Abu Dhabi, Williams has made a bold attempt to combine Ballardian tropes with Islamic mythology, and the results are haunting and beautiful.
I started reading the new Will Self novel/memoir/insane, self-flagellating mash-up last night, “Walking to Hollywood”, and as of 11.00am this morning I’ve read nearly half of it. I’ve been fascinated by Self (“Self-obssesed”?) since the mid-1990s, and although I’ve always found something lacking in his fiction (or not found something that made it seem the novel/short stories was/were lacking), I’ve always thought his non-fiction was peerless. Long have I waited for him to write some genre-bending travel book, or something that would reflect and refract the influence of his literary mentors, the late WG Sebald and the late JG Ballard. On first glance, the new book looks to be it, but I’ll wait and write a proper, considered review when I’ve finished. It goes without saying that the book is excellent, and never anything less than disturbing. The most idiosyncratic of all contemporary writers, I find something almost thrilling not just in the oddness of Self’s combined interests – scale, psychiatry, topography, psychotropic drugs – but in his approach to them.
In the meantime, it’s well worth watching this South Bank Show interview with Self from the mid-1990s. It’s a five-parter, the first part is behind the link. Self comes across as much more confident and even slightly arrogant than he really is, but it’s an excellent introduction to his life and themes.
I’ve been watching, and partially enjoying, the series “In Their Own Words: British Novelists” on BBC 4 over the last couple of weeks. The third and final episode is on Monday (30 August), and you can watch the previous two on iPlayer here and here. The first episode looked at British fiction between the wars, as the age of Empire collapsed into the age of ideology. The second episode looked at the post-war world from 1945 until the end of the 1960s, and how social and cultural change were addressed by a new generation of writers.
I’ll get to everything I thought was wrong with this series in a moment, but the main thing I took away from it was a realisation of how many interesting British writers there are who I’ve yet to read, and, I’m ashamed to say, how many of them are women. Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt are two major novelists who I have never even glanced at, and all I’ve read by Iris Murdoch is her first (and I thought terrible) novel “Under the Net”. Apart from that, it was fascinating to see writers I revere, like William Golding, strolling awkwardly about or pretending to type (in every archive piece there’s a scene where the writer has to sit and type, or stare out of the window and muse) while a cut-glass voiceover described his work, or to see Evelyn Waugh exercise his most vile persona when being interviewed about his books. It was broadly successful in trying to interrogate trends in literary history, and demonstrated well how much the background noise of history and society seeps into a writer’s consciousness, sometimes without them being aware of it. Postwar fiction has been dominated by big American novelists, who seem streets ahead in both style and substance, so it was a useful corrective to see how spiky and obdurate and odd so many British writers have been in this period. What American writers like Philip Roth and John Updike achieved through the scale of their ambition and the energy of their prose, British writers like Golding and JG Ballard made up with sheer weirdness and idiosyncrasy.
The series is let down by the format though, specifically by the clue in the title – that this is “in their own words”. Writers seem to be included in this programme purely on the basis of there being extant archive footage of them, so although the iPlayer frontispiece for the first episode is a brooding picture of him, and despite his vast importance in early 20th century British (and global) literature, there’s nothing here about DH Lawrence. Weirdly, there’s a good ten minutes about Barbara Cartland in the first episode, and although I enjoy the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, I don’t really see that JRR Tolkein is a “British novelist” in the same way Iris Murdoch, or Kingsley Amis, or Ballard, is. Even more ridiculously, while the second episode had an excellent archive interview with Sam Selvon, author of the immigrant classic “The Lonely Londoners”, there was absolutely nothing about VS Naipaul, the man who effectively invented postcolonial literature. Naipaul only featured in the first episode, in the section on Elizabeth Bowen.
Similarly, and given how quick Scottish commentators are to fly at any perceived slight I’d be amazed if I was the first person to point this out, for a series about British novelists, no Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish writers featured at all. I’m sure the final episode, taking us up to the present day, will have something about Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, for example, but it seems an odd lacuna all the same. It’s probable the omission of writers like Alexander Trocchi, or Naomi Mitchison, to name just two Scottish writers working at this time, was because there was nothing in the BBC archives about them, and, if so, demonstrates the shortcomings of the whole series’ approach.
Despite all this, I love any documentary about writers and writing, and I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to see some rare footage of some extraordinary people (and Barbara Cartland … ) I remember in the 1990s there was a series called “Bookmark” which had some excellent hour-long documentaries about Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell, and (my favourite) Martin Amis jetting off to Chicago to interview Saul Bellow. And these were peak-time programmes on BBC2. Although most people can get BBC4 on Freeview, or can watch on the internet, it says a lot for the cultural confidence of the broadcaster to put a series like “In Their Own Words” on the digital station. This is to say nothing of the archive programmes themselves, serious discussions with major novelists, broadcast (necessarily) on BBC1 at peak time. What this programme unintentionally illustrates more than anything is that serious writers were once newsworthy and were assumed to have something of importance to say, about culture, society and politics. It’s seems inescapable that novelists are no longer in the forefront of the culture, or at least not in the same way. When Lawrence Durrell admitted in the second episode that he didn’t believe women had souls, perhaps overall this could be seen as a good thing …
It’s interesting to think of novelists operating on the margins of culture though. Often, it’s on the margins where the most provocative work gets done.