You were 22 when your novel Apples was published. I have read that you begun to write when you were 12 and that you wrote five or six novels before being published. Have you always felt that you were going to be a writer? Did you feel you were different from your mates?
Yes, when I was about 11 the UK was in the heights of what the media called ‘Cool Britannia’: an intense feast of culture ranging from Britpop, the Young British Artists (Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Chapman Brothers etc) and British film was booming with Trainspotting and the like. Seeing all this incredible art in the mainstream made me want to be creative – I took up the bass guitar at the same time I started writing, but always felt fiction was most special to me, the way you can create completely new worlds using just simple symbols on paper. Some of my mates were interested in the same films, books, bands etc but yeah, I was tormented quite a bit by other kids when I was in school for trying to be a writer. I guess it’s seen as an obscure, studious hobby when you’re 11 – and requires you to be reclusive. I withdrew myself a lot when I was in my early teens, before being spat back out the other end again towards my later teens.
Did success change a lot of things in the life of the young man you were?
It was strange at first, yeah. Apples caused quite a stir in Britain when it came out (in 2007), I think because I was so young when it was released, and I was writing about Middlesbrough, a post-industrial area that tended to get bad press (for its deprivation, unemployment, drug problems etc) but had rarely been represented in modern literature. I don’t think I’ve changed much in terms of my personality – I’ve always been fairly reserved, modest, but determined. I guess it’s just strange allowing people an insight into your unconscious. Like Virginia Woolf says: ‘Books are the windows to the soul’ but hopefully I’ve still got the psychedelic curtains partially drawn. I’ve still got more to show.
Irvine Welsh, one of your favorite authors, has declared that you are « a major talent ». Has such a compliment changed your perception of yourself as a writer?
I was blown away by Irvine’s review in The Guardian where that quote came from. He was the author who inspired me to write after I read Trainspotting aged 11, and so to get that recognition from him, I felt like I must be doing something right. But in truth I try not to pay too much attention to reviews, both good and bad – I feel like my writing’s improving with each book, but I still have so much more I want to explore and experiment with.
Apples tells the story of Adam, 15, a rather solitary boy, still virgin, with obessive-compulsive disorders who loves Eve, 15 also, already initiated to sex, alcohol, drugs. Both are confronted to violence. You describe the way they grow up, how they fight against difficulties in a very realistic manner. Did you put a lot of autobiographical elements in your characters? I have read that you had OCD when you were 16, like Adam, and at the same time, Eve’s voice is very accurate, were you closer to Adam or Eve? Was it so hard for you to be a teenager?
I’d say Adam and Eve represent the two sides of my character when I was 16. I had (and still have) some OCD traits, such as washing my hands relentlessly, checking doors, hoarding, fear of illness etc, but through writing I think I’ve managed to put this obsessive side of my personality to good use. Writing has definitely become my biggest obsession – I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t write for a few days, for instance. As for the ‘Eve’ side of my personality, when I turned 16 I realised I could get served alcohol in the pubs in my home town, and it opened my eyes to a new world of experimentation. I always admired the debauched artists of yesterday – William Burroughs, Baudelaire, The Beatles, etc – and so always knew I’d get involved with certain liquid or chemical stimulants once I had access. And so I guess, at 16, my life began to transform – from being quite reclusive to indulging headlong in all manner of earthly delights. Apples marks that transformation.
Girls are major characters in your works, thank you for not depicting too much sweet and weak creatures. Even if they are more violently abused (they have to face male violence, rapes, unwanted pregnancies), hope comes from them although. Do you think that life is harsher for girls?
One reason I wrote Apples was I kept seeing girls being mistreated by males in the pubs and clubs I’d begun drinking in. I wanted the novel to be a kind of ‘anti-macho fairytale’, and so most of the cruelty in the book towards women is intended to draw attention to the dubious behaviour of some men, the way they often objectify women, especially in a pub/club situation under the false bravado of alcohol. I think at school age, girls and boys have it as difficult as each other – but since girls biologically develop faster than boys, I guess they attract the attention of older, predatory males from quite an early age. 15/16-year-old boys tend not to have the same problem of being preyed on by older women until they’ve developed into ‘men’ themselves – I wanted to address this strange chasm between the sexes.
You tell the experiences they make, the apples they taste, as answers to their environment, without notions of judgement or guilt. Do you think that your Adam and Eve deserve to be chased from the Garden of Eden? Will they find their paradise?
I didn’t want to apply any kind of morality on the characters – it was up to the reader to judge them, or identify with them, or have sympathy for them. I’m always interested by the mixed responses people have about the characters – some readers seem to disregard them in the same way they’d cross the street if a group of teenagers were up ahead, while others have told me they understand the kids on their estate, or the kids they teach, better after reading the book. I feel hopeful about Adam and Eve’s future – they’re both forced to grow up quickly but, like many youngsters, they have an incredibly acute understanding of their own worlds, and hopefully they can carry that along with them through life.
Apples is realistic in its form and style, we know they live in Middlesbrough, but don’t you think that you have written something more universal, more timeless than your own experience?
Definitely. That was the main reason for me naming the characters Adam and Eve: the most classical of first names. Anyone who has made it through their teenage years should understand the social seesawing and power struggles in the book.
Adam doesn’ listen to music which was « popular » among teenagers in the 2000’s. Whereas we could expect Adam to listen to Radiohead or, maybe Coldplay, or Britpop, he listens to the Beatles, the Stones, the Byrds. What did you want to say through that very particular characteristic?
I think, again, I wanted the choice of music to allow the book to seem more timeless. I think forcing your characters to listen to the year’s current hits could age a book horrendously. But also these were the songs I was listening to a lot at the time – the messages in Beatles and Stones songs seemed to fit the themes of Apples well. I love how there’s a Beatles or Stones songs relevant to any kind of feeling of being in and out of love, everything from being smitten, to jealousy, to desperation, to indifference.
Eve listens to Laurent Garnier and Dance Music. What does it reveal about her personality ? It seems that music has not a real importance in her life, it is no real pleasure, just like sex, am I right?
Yes, I think music for Eve is more of a means to an end. She doesn’t collect records and attach personal significance to songs in the same way Adam does – the songs merely soundtrack her nights out. They’re a catalyst allowing her to indulge in what she wants to do, ie join the dancefloor with her friends, get close to certain men, or avoid men by sticking close by her friends.
What did you listen when you were 15?
I was listening to similar music as Adam: Britpop mostly, like Blur, Oasis, Cast, Sleeper, Elastica, etc. I remember staying up late listening to John Peel under the covers at that age too – he was a legendary Radio 1 DJ in the UK, who used to play the most obscure, innovative, often deranged records. When I was about 15 I discovered bands I still love to this day: Mogwai, The Fall, Sonic Youth, etc.
Do you listen to music when you are writing anyway? And painting? The same kind of music?
Yes, always, though I have a slight OCD trait in that I listen to music at a barely-audible volume 1 when I’m writing (my hifi goes up to 100). I think, in a way, listening to music too loud can be distracting – especially when you can hear the lyrics clearly. For instance, I love The Fall, but find them almost unlistenable when writing because it’s too tempting to rip off Mark E Smith’s beautifully bizarre imagery. Bands like My Bloody Valentine, Mogwai, Sonic Youth seem more suitable to write to, since the lyrics seem secondary to the incredible, obscure guitar textures.
In the french version of your novel, you have added a lists of songs : Whigfield / « Saturday Night », The Rolling Stones / « She’s A Rainbow », Laurent Garnier / « Coloured City », Elliott Smith / « Independence Day », The Beatles / « Yer Blues », Percy Sledge / « When a Man Loves a Woman », The Fall / « Industrial Estate », Energy 52 / « Café del Mar », Jefferson Airplane / « Somebody to Love », The Beatles / « All You Need is Love », did you listen to that songs while writing Apples, or are they supposed to be listened by your characters?
Yeah, those were the songs Asphalte included in the back of the book as a playlist – they all relate to the story in some way, and many are mentioned directly in the text too. For instance, Claire wishes her unwanted baby was conceived to ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, ‘Industrial Estate’ relates to Middlesbrough’s heavily industrial skyline, ‘Independence Day’ is the song that inspired the chapter narrated by a butterfly.
Do you think that music has an influence on your style ? Does it help you to create a special atmosphere, peculiar feelings and images?
Yes, definitely. Another contemporary author from England, Joe Stretch, once said the sentences in my books are like miniature pop songs, which I’m very flattered by. I do make the effort to add as much rhythm and energy to each line as I can – and I’m sure this comes from my love of music. I think fiction somehow seems to be lagging behind music in terms of experimentation. There are so many popular bands who use incredibly innovative, mindbending sounds on their records, whereas many authors seem to adhere to quite a rigid, almost classical approach to constructing sentences. Music has definitely inspired me to be more experimental, more playful.
Your second novel, Ten Storey Love Song, describes the lives of the inhabitants of a block, Peach House, in Middlesbrough. Bobby is a painter living with his girlfriend Georgie who sells sweets in a shop. They share moments with the community constituted by their neighbours. You have used a particular construction for this novel, only one paragraph, why?
In all my novels I want the subject matter to influence the form. With Ten Storey Love Song I wanted to reflect the apartment block setting by structuring the novel as a literal ‘block’ of text: one continuous, streaming paragraph. I was living in an apartment block at the time, and found it interesting how living in such close proximity to other people allows you to overhear certain aspects of their lives against your will. It’s usually the more extreme aspects: like arguments, sex, what music they listen to, etc. In the novel, the characters ‘interrupt’ each other’s lives mid-sentence, just as they do in a real apartment block: characters pass in the hallways, wake each other from slumbers, hear drama through the walls.
You have also added a list of songs for that novel : The Stone Roses / “Ten Storey Love Song”, Bardo Pond / “The High Frequency”, Joanna Newsom / “Peach, Plum, Pear”, My Bloody Valentine / “Loomer”, Mazarin / “Henry Darger”, DJ Alligator / “Lollipop”, Nico / “Chelsea Girls”, The Fall / “How I Wrote « Elastic Man »”, The Kinks / “Victoria”, Frank Sinatra / “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, Syd Barrett / “Waving My Arms In The Air”, David Bowie / “Magic Dance”. Did you use this title because you particularly love the Stone Roses ? And tell us about the other songs you chose?
Yes, partly I named the novel in homage to my friends, who introduced me to the Stone Roses as well as certain drugs that feature in the story. The individual aspects of that song title seemed to fit the themes of the novel: the ten-storey apartment block setting, the twisted love lives, and the importance of music in the book, the lyrical prose. As with the Apples playlist, the other songs relate to the novel or feature directly in the text: ‘Peach, Plum, Pear’ are the names of the other blocks on the estate, Bowie’s Labyrinth is mentioned during one of Bobby’s bad trips, and I always thought of the wild characters haunting the Chelsea Hotel in New York in the 1950s/60s while writing the novel, hence ‘Chelsea Girls’.
Bobby, in the novel, goes to London to sell his paintings. He is very disappointed by the city. He finds that it is full of superficial and snobbish people, and he is happy to come back to Middlesbrough. Is it a criticism against the scene of contemporary art you know well yourself, or most generally against London? Does it still exist a dichotomy between North and South in the UK? Is Boro the Garden of Eden?
I think more generally it’s a criticism of London, though I transposed a lot of my feelings about the literati of London onto the art world. Yes, there’s definitely a North/South divide still in the UK – being a proud Northerner, I’d say people are warmer up North, self-deprecating, and each town in the North seems to have a greater sense of identity, with a wider array of accents and traditional industries etc. I spent three years studying in London and, while the city excited me at first, there’s a coldness and claustrophobia there. It’s a place where it’s easy to blend in and be anonymous, but in doing so, you can feel very detached from your fellow species.
And in music, are there still geographical differences ? Do you feel more the influence of Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, or Leeds, in Middlesbrough, for instance ? When Adam says that “he feels like a boy from a Smiths’ song” (sorry for the translation), has it a specific meaning because he is from the North?
Possibly. I love so much music that has come from those cities, but in truth a lot of bands tend to move to London to make it big. I think it just comes from the identity and pride these towns give these bands – there seems to be more of a tendency to write about everyday Northern life in their lyrics, and in doing so the songs ring true across the country.
Are there bands in Middlesbrough? Sorry, I didn’t find a famous band from there, only articles about your football team.
Middlesbrough has a thriving, small-scale music scene – there are plenty of bands, indie nights, clubs etc, but strangely there haven’t been many bands of note from the region. Paul Smith from Maximo Park is from nearby (Billingham), but yes, we’re much better known for the football team. Even though the team’s been dreadful lately.
Do you write for a specific public?
Not particularly. When Apples came out I was seen as ‘the voice of youth’ in the British press, but I don’t tend to think of anyone, young or old, when I’m writing. It’s more a case of me trying to keep myself entertained.
Do you think of people’s reaction when you write? Did you use self-censorship sometimes?
I tend to go by the rule: if it entertains me, it should hopefully entertain people who share my taste. It annoys me occasionally when an author seems to have self-censored their work – they’re happy to spend five pages describing a picnic in a park, but a sex scene might receive a flippant, cursory sentence or two, as if the camera’s coyly panning away in a 12-rated film. Of course, that’s not to say sex is more important than picnics in the park – but I just feel some authors are more worried about what their grandparents might think of their writing rather than them allowing themselves to be honest and unabashed.
Your novels are said to be representative of British working-class youth, what is it to be British for you nowadays, and to belong to the working-class?
What with the current economic climate, it’s been difficult for people up here recently – jobs are scarce and so a lot of my friends have been forced out of the country to work on oil rigs, ships, etc. The working classes have been hit hardest by government cuts etc, and on the back of that I keep seeing pubs, libraries, working mens’ clubs in these areas shutting down. But, as has always been the case, people seem to pull together in times of adversity – it’s difficult to break that working class pride, stoicism. The black, almost gallows humour you find in the working class pubs around Britain reflects that defiance.
Bobby takes drugs when he paints, and his works are very psychedelic, colourful. I have seen yours, full of colours too, what do you take? At least, you must have tasted some to describe the way your characters react, no? Did you taste taking drugs while writing also?
Yes, I’ve experimented with plenty of substances over the years: Ecstasy is my drug of choice since it seems to go well with my personality – carefree and generally exuberant. I’m mainly inspired by hallucinogenic drugs when I’m writing and painting – I’m interested in how they’re a fast-track route to a dream-like state, though I’m inspired just as equally by the Surrealists. Though they rarely took drugs themselves, in a sense taking drugs and exploring your unconscious is similar to the Surrealists experiments with séances, automatic writing, trance states in the early 20th century. I can’t write under the influence though – it seems clever at the time, but looks awful the morning after.
Ten Storey Love Song seems to be more happy than Apples, even if there is full of hope in it. Are you relieved not to be a teenager any more ? Do you feel like an adult, now?
I’m not sure – I kid myself I still feel teenage today, and I do miss those years, but I can feel adulthood’s set in recently: my hangovers are crippling nowadays, friends are wrestling with parenthood, others have moved away to follow careers. But in terms of creativity I still feel very young. I think it was Marcel Duchamp who said: ‘When you stop seeing life through the eyes of a child, you start dying’. I try to cling to that sentiment.
Have you been disappointed by the literary microcosm? Have you been confronted with reactions, behaviours that you had not expected?
Yeah, it was strange being in the midst of the London literati while I was studying down there. Apples was just about to come out and there was quite a bit of hype behind it – but it was strange being lauded by people who hadn’t even read the book. I remember one bloke proclaiming I was a ‘genius’ just because I looked young and was wearing a tracksuit top at some complimentary-drinks party. I quickly realised it’s an industry based on exaggerations and fickleness. It was refreshing moving back to Middlesbrough, since people here are much less inclined to kiss anybody’s arse.
Do you think you belong to a specific literary movement? How would you define it? Are there young artists in Britain (authors, painters, musicians…) with whom you share artistic points of view?
I don’t think I’m part of a literary movement, though I often read with other young British authors, like Joe Dunthorne, Michael Smith, Joe Stretch, etc. I love that there’s been a recent slew of psychedelic, shoegaze-influenced bands, like TOY, Temples, Tame Impala – I possibly feel more affinity with these bands, the way they feed their sound and ideas through a kaleidoscopic filter, and are always experimenting.
I’ve read that you were working on Apples‘ film adaptation. Can you tell us about it?
Yes, I wrote the screenplay for the film, but at this moment the cogs have slowed down slightly. It’s understandable in this economic climate that financiers are less willing to risk funding new films – and the current government have slashed funding to the national film council, so it’s proving harder to make new British films. But I’m hopeful it will still happen – I’m pleased with the script, and I’m sure any audience could relate to the twisted teen themes in Apples.
Your latest novel, Kimberly’s Capital Punishment, has not been translated in French yet. What it is talking about? Is it also “musical”, and will it have its own soundtrack?
The book’s more experimental than the first two – it follows the narrator, Kimberly, as she attempts to be as nice as possible to humankind after feeling responsible for her boyfriend’s suicide. Halfway through the novel Kimberly perishes, and the reader’s invited to roll a dice to see what happens to her in the afterlife: she either goes to Heaven, Hell, is reincarnated, resurrected, turns into a ghost, or rests in peace. The book uses a lot of experimental devices, like Burroughsian cut-ups, wordplay, acrostics – the wordplay might explain why it hasn’t been translated into French yet! The novel doesn’t reference music as directly as the first two novels – though I think it pushes the ‘rhythmic’, musical prose further.
Tell us about the Electronic Voice Phenomena project. Isn’t it precisely a kind of surrealist experiment?
Yes, it was interesting being given a brief to perform a five-minute piece based around Electronic Voice Phenomena: the phenomenon of hearing voices from the beyond through radio sets, seances, etc. I’m heavily influenced by the Surrealists and especially love the increasingly crazed experiments they did with seances in the early 1920s. For my piece I wrote a short, scattershot biography of the poet Robert Desnos, who was said to be able to ‘speak surrealist at will’, and I interspersed this with random blurts of his ‘Rrose Selavy’ poems and puns. I only wish I could read French better, to appreciate his wordplay in the original!
What are your plans ? Are you working on your fourth novel?
Yes, I’ve nearly finished my fourth novel. I’ve spent the past few years visiting boxing halls and gymnasia – the book centres around a twelve-year-old deaf boxer with extreme tinnitus, interspersed with vignettes following the characters who surround him in a strange Welsh village. It’s a bit of a departure from my first three novels – it’s a bit less dreamlike and surrealistic, but still has certain shades of strangeness and mystery…
Interview published in New Noise n°19 – december-january 2014