Richard Krawiec (english version)

photo Anne-Marie Lafleur                                  Photo : Anne-Marie Lafleur
In 2013, Les éditions Tusitala decided to publish Dandy, twenty-seven years after its original release in the USA. Were you surprised by the interest they showed in your novel after all this time?

When Tusitala contacted me to publish Dandy I was surprised.  I had pretty much given up hope that I would be able to continue my work as a novelist. Not because I didn’t believe in my work, but because the U.S. publishing industry had been turned over to the Sales Departments who looked at books only as products to be sold, and so focused on audience demographic appeals, not what the books were about.

Since then, Vulnérables and Paria have been published in 2017 and 2020 by Tusitala, (whereas they are still unpublished in the USA), and your three novels have come out in paperback. How do you explain the success you have in France? On the contrary, do you know why it is difficult for you to find a publisher in your country?

What became apparent to me with first Dandy, then Vulnerables and Paria, all published by Tusitala, is that readers and reviewers in France were, in general, more thoughtful and contemplative.  They understood not only the story, but the philosophical, sociological, cultural and psychological underpinnings of a story. They liked complex characters. Too often in the U.S. the emphasis in fiction, among writers, readers, and publishers, is primarily on plot, and because of that we want simple two-dimensional heroes and villains who can fit into a 90 minute movie. Because that’s what the American publishing industry is to a large extent interested in, film properties, not literature. There are, of course, exceptions to this. But in the U.S. too often we want simple good and bad characters, with no nuance.
When I was sending Vulnerables (as At the Mercy) around to publishers in the U.S. I received rejections from Senior Editors at NY  publishing houses, who praised the writing but found it disturbing.  One called it the greatest first person novel since Camus’ The Stranger, but then went on to say they couldn’t publish it because the Sales Department didn’t see a demographic.  I had one of those ‘super agents’ at the time who thought my novel would go out on auction and bring in a 6-figure, possibly 7 figure, offer.  He couldn’t sell the book and was stunned.

Have you completely abandoned the idea of convincing the Americans ?

During that period a couple things happened that also influenced my temporary turn from trying to publish. My first two children were born. I became deeply involved in running a non-profit that taught writing at homeless shelters, women’s shelters, drug programs, ESL classes, housing projects, prisons (including Death Row). And the woman I was married to at the time had mental health issues which led to my becoming a single parent for two young children and an adult.  Despite the fact Dandy (as Time Sharing) had garnered critical attention in the NY Times, Publishers Weekly, LA Times, Village Voice, had sold film options to a major Hollywood producer, I was confronted with an indifferent publishing industry where Sales Departments had usurped editorial decisions and now had final say over what books were published. I kept writing but decided to withdraw from the publishing scene in the U.S. With the thoughtful attention I’ve received in France I haven’t felt a need to put any time or effort into publishing in English. I suppose I should.  But I’d rather spend that time writing than attempting to wrestle with the American publishing industry.

You seem to be like Bukowski, SaFranko, Stokoe, Fante or Roberge, more appreciated by the French than the American readers. Do you feel an affinity with these writers?

Once, at a costume party in a bookstore I dressed up as Bukowski – I wore a stained bathrobe, hair disheveled, and swore at those around me. I’m Bukowski I said, what do you expect? I do feel an affinity for Bukowski, and other writers like those you mention. But  among contemporary American writers I feel a greater affinity towards early Robert Stone, Richard Price, Raymond Carver, Nick Flynn. Writers whose characters are anti-heroes, complex and damaged trying to navigate through a corrupted world where there often are no clear ways forward.

dandy vulnérables paria

Billy, in Vulnérables, reads Albert Camus. What did you want to express through this particular reading?

Billy is a little like Meursault.  He has experienced a traumatic event which results in his committing an extreme act of violence, although Meursault’s seems on the surface more arbitrary.  Neither one fits in their society, neither one ‘plays the game’ as Camus put it.  I also thought the point of having Billy read that book, or reading at all, was to show people are capable of far greater intellectual engagement than we give them credit for.  When I teach in prisons, the insight the women and men have into works of literature is often highly sophisticated, much more so than my university students. They focus on the characters, the situations, not the prose techniques. I once met a man from Cuba in a homeless shelter who had appeared on a radio program with Neruda. One of the greatest poets I’ve ever read was in a shelter, a woman from New Zealand writing about the Maoris. Unfortunately, she got trapped in the crack whirlpool and could not swim out.

Your novels talk about people who struggle to make a living, who feel rejected, left out. Do you want to give voice to those who are unheard?

I grew up one street over from the projects – where my next novel,  Les Paralysés  is set, by the way.  From a young age, I saw the way some people were treated like they didn’t exist, like their voices didn’t matter.  I was treated that way.  I did want to give voice to those who were silenced directly, or by indifference.  I experienced class prejudice my whole life – the son of a Polack and an Irish woman, the first one in my family to go to college. I remember one leftist ‘scholar’ stopping me in the corridors of the university one day to scold, « You’re in college now, time to lose your working class accent ».

Do you consider you write social, political novels?

I think my novels include social and political arguments, but they develop out of the lives of the people I write about, people who are struggling to survive in all ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, economically – often without any clue how they are to attempt that. They are thwarted by the families and systems they are randomly born into. But I always begin when I ‘see’ a character in some setting, dealing with some conflict, or hear them speak, and I am curious to find out what they are going to do next. Through their human stories, the social and political are revealed.

The stories of Dandy and Vulnérables take place in the late 1980’s, when unbridled capitalism was advocated by Reagan. Do you think, as Larry Fondation wrote in the French preface of Dandy, that poverty, disparities have increased, that everything has even gotten worse since? Do you think Biden will be a better president for the poor than Trump?

Yes, I do think everything has gotten worse in this country. I don’t see it getting any better. Absolutely, trump was a disaster. But Biden seems clueless – look at his immigration fiasco.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees hidden away in warehouses, crammed shoulder to shoulder in sleeping cells. Thousands of Haitians deported to a country rife with physical and economic violence. Children sexually abused at detention centers. The press is denied the right to access these facilities and see what’s going on inside, talk to the refugees. During our entire covid crisis people in poor neighborhoods have been left out – no testing or vaccination facilities in their communities, poor medical care – while the needs of the upper middle class white population and corporations have been addressed. So, no, I see little hope today, or for the future frankly. Worse, the true potential tragedy is this  – the more Biden struggles it sets up the very real possibility that trump could run and get elected again. The failure of one side always leads to the success of the other because in the U.S. we ‘think’ things through in a simplistic binary way.

Your website biographical presentation says that : « his writing is informed by his personal experiences. He grew up in the depressed, working class city of Brockton, Massachusetts, and his many jobs include assembly line worker, dishwasher, newspaper delivery person, truck driver, fast food and short order cook, cabbie, waiter and teacher. » You knew the same difficult living conditions as your characters. Do you think an author writes well on what he knows well?

Everyone always advises – write what you know.  And that’s true.  But the danger in that is to write simply personal reflections.  Writing only about what you have experienced offers a limited vision of the world. It is important to write about what you have learned through your personal experiences and feelings.  But it is equally important to write about what you have learned through witnessing the lives of others. It’s important to pay attention to all the people you have met along your journey of life, even those you dislike, to try and understand what has happened to them, why, how it has affected their interior lives and how it manifests itself in their interactions with others. Don’t writers have to try to understand the forces that go into forming every human being. Yes, we can only fail at this, but it’s important to try. As Louise Erdrich said, « None of us is wise enough to understand the heart of another, but it is our duty in life to try. »

So yes, know one’s self.  But also know others. In addition, research research research research research. Always be eager to learn. The last element that is essential to a writer, the one most overlooked these days, is imagination.  A writer’s imagination should be valued as much as a writer’s experience.  Some years back The New Yorker published a long piece on the dialogue of Richard Price and the author of the piece made an important point.  Often we talk about how some writers have a ‘good ear’ for dialogue, meaning they can listen to others and report speech nuances accurately.  But this piece in The New Yorker spoke about Price having a ‘good imagination’ for dialogue, the ability to render dialogue that sounded true to a character while also bearing thematic weight.

The reader feels a great empathy for your characters, (I think about Artie and Jolene, or Billy) even if they are not exempt from meanness. You avoid any kind of naive optimism or Manichaeism to portray them. They can be liars, calculating, violent but they judge themselves more harshly than we do. Have you put a lot of yourself in a character like Billy, for instance?

There is a part of me in every character I’ve written, every single one.  On the other side, none of the characters I’ve written is really that close to being me.  The real me.  Whatever that means.  I began my writing journey wanting to give dignity to people I saw in my daily live, people I knew who were ignored, erased from society as if they did not exist. But I did not want anyone to pity them. I wanted people to love them, and to do so despite their human failings, their imperfections, to recognize the shared humanity that binds us all. That has made my fiction difficult for many in the U.S. One woman said to me, after reading Dandy, « I know there are poor people, but I don’t want to have to look at them. »  It’s easy to condemn or pity a character. To do either allows the reader to keep the character at arm’s length, to treat them as ‘other, not me’. I want to bring the reader into the same existential room with my characters, I want them to sit down and have a conversation as it were.

The environment where your characters live is very important in your novels. Do you think that town-planning has an influence on people’s life?

Town planning – you hit on something important there.  Yes, planning conditions how people in a community think about themselves and others.  The city I live in now, Durham, NC  used to have a thriving African-American middle class, a merchant district, Hayti, which was a center of the community. I first lived in East Durham, which was rife with poverty, after the city destroyed Hayti. The city planners, under the guise of improving the city for all, built a loop road around the city center, closed down the Hayti district, and moved the African-American merchants out to a strip of tin shacks – temporarily they said.  Of course it wasn’t temporary. It was an attempt to destroy those businesses, and the power that came with a thriving middle class community. The real purpose of the loop road was to attempt to remove people of color from the downtown area, to prevent African-Americans easy access to downtown, so developers could build projects to attract more ‘white people’ downtown.  They engaged in similar behavior in Raleigh, implementing changes to a thriving city center full of poor and working class people. They were the ‘wrong kind’ of people for the developers.  So they closed stores, removed benches from parks the homeless slept on, forced services out of the center to remote areas of the city – planned changes designed  to remove poor, working class and people of color from the downtown area so they could ‘revitalize it’ by encouraging white, suburbanites to move in.  In essence, make it look like a suburb.
The settings of my novels are not incidental.  They are where my characters live. The environment affects one’s choices, limits one’s possibilities.

photo Sylvia Freemanphoto : Sylvia Freeman

The society you depict is so violent, physically and psychologically. Billy, or Stewart in Paria, are unable to manage their own violence. Because violence is inherent in american society?

In such a place, with limited opportunities or paths forward, violence often becomes endemic.  Violence against women, against people of color, against those who are gay, or intelligent. Today we might refer to it as toxic masculinity, racism, misogyny, homophobia.  U.S. society is violent – we came here and immediately began to slaughter the tribal people. We burned women we pretended were witches.  Hung people merely because their skin was brown. Our government in the past gave blankets infested with smallpox to tribal people – our first use of a weaponized virus.  Look at our foreign policy today?  How many millions have we killed, left homeless, turned into refugees, while pretending we are making the world safe for freedom? We just celebrated and honored a general who died, despite the fact that general covered up a massacre in Vietnam, spoke against allowing gays into the military, and deliberately lied to the American public about WMDs in Iraq, which resulted in an unjustified war that left literally millions dead or without homes in the Middle East, and is still causing destruction today.

Is the american dream a myth?

In a society based on violence, where violence is presented as good, a society where we celebrated the dropping of atomic bombs, instead of mourning their usage, where people watch drone strikes on the news and applaud as if they are enjoying violent entertainment in a video game – how can people not be expected to resort to violence on a personal level? It is as American as apple pie. The American myth? There is none. We have been infected with the virus of capitalism, it enacts its philosophies in almost all our people without being noticed.  We don’t even think about how everything has devolved to a series of personal transactional relationships. A few years back one of the most popular bumper stickers was, He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins. That’s our myth.

Society is even more violent towards women. They are beaten by their lovers and are victims of sexual assaults. There is a passage in Paria where you describe how Stewart, like most men during the 60’s, is uneducated in matters of sexuality. He thinks he has to be brutal to affirm his masculinity and that girls love roughness. Do you think the younger generation of men is improving?

As recently as the 1960s advertising showed men spanking women to get them to make a better cup of coffee.  I resigned from directing a play in 1986 because the theater group wanted me to direct a classic play where a woman was slapped across the face to ‘knock some sense into her’. I volunteered for the Women’s Center and Shelter when I lived in Pittsburgh, had many friends who were survivors of violence, physical and sexual, my poetry press, Jacar Press, has sponsored free workshops for survivors of rape.  I’ve taught workshops for children and adults who were abused, and also men who are abusers. So I may be biased, but I don’t see the situation getting better in this country. I think men are more aware that they will be judged for their actions towards women.  Some younger men choose to withdraw from relationships rather than work through it – which I suppose is a healthier choice. But I guess young people in general are more sensitive to this than previous generations. Young women more willing to speak out. I think the growing acceptance of a variety of lifestyles among the young helps lessen the violence. But it’s still a major problem in the U.S.

Society is also violent towards the minorities. In Paria, which happens in the 60’s, there is a wave of racial hatred, lynchings… Do you think racism is still as strong as before in the USA? Is the Black Lives Matter movement changing things?

I don’t think we are in general less violent towards those we see as ‘other’. We just hide it better. Still, I am a Romantic Pessimist. I am optimistic that community-based groups like Black Lives Matter can lead to incremental change from the bottom up.  But I am concerned too at the growing support for military and intelligence systems and actions by those on the mainstream left who previously would have questioned those systems.

Society is above all violent towards its children. All your characters are misfits because their parents were not up to it, they failed in giving them love or because of their immaturity or their ignorance. We are suffering for Dandy or Billy so much. Do you think that the original purity is always corrupted by the adults?

We often hear the phrase, It takes a village to raise a child. We parrot that as if we are speaking only about raising children to be good and kind.  But it also takes a village to raise a rapist, a racist, a murderer. People become who they are through a cauldron of dna and life experiences. Hitler, Trump, Vacher were all born babies who didn’t hate; they were born capable of loving.  How did they become who they became?  Yes, it begins with parenting – how does anyone know how to parent?  Some people are born lucky, into families that care and nurture their children.  Some are born to people who are clueless, often dealing with their own fears and anxieties and extreme economic distress. Some children can be damaged as much by that as by abuse. Who knows why one person can endure and overcome and another can’t? Sometimes a potentially good parent can be turned violent, mean, by economic stress, or untreated illness. Then there are things that happen one has no control over. One man I worked with who was executed for murder was actually a creative misfit who was caught peeping into a window and sent to prison where he was brutally gang-raped every day for over a year.  Is it any wonder he came out of prison a man capable of murder?

You also write poetry. Do fiction and poetry involve completely different forms of sensibility?

I’ve been fortunate to have published a wide range of writing – novels, stories, essays, poems, plays, creative non-fiction, investigative journalism.  Each form has its own literary needs and approaches. As well as time requirements.  I can sit and write a draft of a poem in 1 morning, set it aside and either return to it the next day, week, or month.  When writing a novel I really need to live with it in my head constantly, sometimes for years. The lockdown for covid was perfect for me because it wiped clean my calendar. I literally lost all my work, couldn’t go anywhere, see anyone, so my time was fully my own and I wrote, and read, more in 2 years than I had in the previous10.  I finished one novel, Les Paralysés, and am close to completing another, Damage.

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Can you give us details about them?

My next novel, scheduled for 2022 release, Les Paralysés, is set in a housing project. It features a cast of women, men, children all trying to overcome the society and culture and entrapment of their lives, trying to find some way to achieve happiness, against the odds of the limitations of their lives and experiences, despite the society and environment and personal relationships, which impose limitations on their possibilities. The setting is a sprawling mazelike housing project, closed in by a toxic swamp and a rubbish dump, an empty factory standing at the entrance. The people who live there are trapped. They have no way out. No is coming in to help, except for the predators.They are left to fend for themselves, to feed on one another, to fight and scrabble to find something – love maybe? hope? And Damage – that latter title might point to my main theme in all the writing I do – is about the damage we witness, receive, perpetrate, overcome, or don’t. Our struggle to live despite.

Interview published in New Noise n°60 – January-february 2022

John King and Irvine Welsh (english version)

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The Seal Club – Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, John King
‘The Seal Club is a three-novella collection by the authors Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King, three stories that capture their ongoing interests and concerns, stories that reflect bodies of work that started with Morvern Callar, Trainspotting and The Football Factory – all best-sellers, all turned into high-profile films.
In Warner’s Those Darker Sayings, a gang of Glaswegian nerds ride the mainline trains of northern England on a mission to feed the habit of their leader Slorach. Frustrated, cynical and a big disappointment to his family, Slorach is also a man of great intelligence and deep knowledge, a British Rail timetables call-centre guru who just happens to be addicted to gambling machines. And pubs. Welcome to the world of the quiz-machine casual.
In Welsh’s The Providers, a terminally ill woman’s family gather in Edinburgh for her last Christmas, but everyone needs to be on their best behaviour, and that includes her son Frank, recently released from prison and trying to forge a new life as an artist. Also present is his brother Joe, who arrives in a state of alcoholic dissolution. The ultimate nightmare family-Christmas looms, where secrets and lies explode like fireworks.
In King’s The Beasts Of Brussels, thousands of thirsty Englishmen assemble in the EU capital ahead of a football match against Belgium, their behaviour monitored by two media professionals who spout different politics but share the same interests. Meanwhile, a small crew of purists run the gauntlet in Germany, eager to join the fun. As order breaks down and the Establishment rages, we are left to identify the true beasts of the story.
The Seal Club is maverick, outspoken fiction for the 2020s. It will make you think and it will make you smile.’

John King and Irvine Welsh about The Seal Club

John King 2 NB Photo : Bruno Picat
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Photo : Steve Double
John, where does the idea to gather these three novellas in a collection come from?

Irvine suggested it in a pub called The Ship in Soho, Central London. We had briefly touched on doing something together in the past, but this was when the idea was properly formed. There is a nice link as I first met Irvine in the same pub back in the mid-1990s, and one of the first sessions I had with Alan was in there also.

Did you find the title? Can you explain to us what ‘The Seal Club’ exactly means?

The title can be interpreted in different ways and it is best if people read the book and study the text, consider the various layers, muse on the possibilities, and then, after a period of reflection, decide on the meaning. We are sworn to secrecy on this, as otherwise the magic will be tainted. The Seal Club is as much a state of mind as anything else. So our lips are sealed. They are sealed with a kiss.

It is the first time I read one of your texts that is so short. Are there differences between writing a novel, a novella or a short story?

There are definitely differences, and it was an interesting learning experience. Is a novella a short novel? Is it a long short story? That is what I was asking myself. I decided it is neither. That it stands alone. Once I had rejected the stronger option that it must be a long short story, I was able to finish Beasts. I went for different threads, a variety of voices and styles, wanted to achieve an intensity the form allows. More expansive than a short story, more tightly written than a novel. The experience was very positive. I have two other novellas here half-done, and now I can finish them.

For those who know your work well, ‘The Beasts Of Brussels’ can be seen as a digest of your talent for giving a voice to very different characters. The words of the eurocrat Robert Marsh is very far from the language of Matt or Pat, as what they drink. How do you succeed in finding their precise way of speaking? Are certain speeches misleading?

Robert Marsh’s language reflects his background and his attitudes. He says one thing and does another. The man is a bullshitter. A hypocrite who doesn’t live his own words. Marsh and his friend Chris Bradley may spout different political views, but they behave in the same way. Our political, media and so-called creative classes are full of these people. Self-serving careerists. In a broader sense, it is a lot of fun playing with different uses of language and styles, as I also do with Matt, Pat and Tommy. Hopefully it helps show their characters and states of mind. It makes things more interesting for me as a writer as well.

We follow successively Matt, Pat, Darren, Tom. Each one expresses his views, tells some memories. Each one has a voice, a background, has lived funny stories or dramas. Did you want to personify them as individuals, whereas they are always presented as a whole, a horde?

John : It is a bonus as much as an aim. Everyone has a story. Everyone is an individual. As a writer you choose which characters you want to go into in more depth, what works for the overall story and how it balances or contradicts other characters and storylines. We live with difference, have views that may conflict with those of our friends, and that’s healthy. We don’t all have to think the same way. There is a lot of talk about diversity these days, but there seems to be a lot less diversity of thought, largely due in my view to the internet and social-media bullying.

Irvine, are women the providers? In your work in general, the main characters are often men and they get to take the center stage. Do you consider women more reliable, responsible?

Yes. Men have been responsible for many of the good things in human development but we’ve simply come to the end of our usefulness and we just  keep shitting the bed. You have to fuck up in order to grow but we keep do it in the same way and as well as threatening the existence of our species, it’s also getting boring. And all ‘enlightened’ men can come up with as a solution is to turn us into robots. If there is a future for humanity, its female.

Begbie is about to leave Edinburg. He is supposed to have changed. He doesn’t drink any more, is fit, is becoming a famous artist. He is leaving behind his bad habits and wrong crowd as if the city had a bad influence on him. How do you feel about Edinburg? Can you stay long far from your hometown?

I’ve been back in Edinburgh since Covid after a long absence. I come back regularly to write and to see family and friends. I get inspiration from North Edinburgh and Leith primarily, but the wit and style of the working classes there in general. I love the city, but it’s a big world and I’ve always aspired to immerse myself in as much of it as possible. The city is ours, but so is the planet.

“To invite Frank and Joe for Christmas, what a bloody mistake that was”. Since the beginning, the scene is set. The readers who hear about Frank for the first time, and of course those who already know Begbie, understand immediately his sister Elspeth is right, it is not a good idea. The atmosphere is tense, the explosion is expected at any moment. Is it enjoyable to deepen Begbie’s ambiguity, to play with your readers’ nerves and to share complicity with your fans?

He’s a nutter. So fundamentally disassociated from his violence. One of the great things about him is that he is unpredictable. Those are great characters to write and as a reader, they are fun to read.

The atmosphere is even tenser because everything happens behind closed doors. Nobody can escape. It happens in one room, it is like a real-time family tragedy. The reader is like a voyeur hearing and seeing secrets. Did you conceive your text as a theatrical piece that could be played on stage?

It’s had a strange history. I thought of it as a black box play and then I wrote it as a shorter piece for The Big Issue before developing it into a stage play. Obviously with Covid nothing is happening theatre wise so I redeveloped it as a longer piece for Seal Club.

We are living a terrible period at the moment with the covid pandemic, with the masks, the curfews and lockdown. Pubs, stadiums, clubs, concert halls are closed. Does it affect your way of writing? Does it limit or free your imagination?

John : It hasn’t affected my way of writing in one sense, as I impose my own lockdowns in order to fully concentrate, but they only last one month at the most. The pandemic does make it harder to focus though, as my mind is racing like everyone else’s, and what is going on connects to things I have written about in the past, whether it is White Trash and healthcare, or the origins of the virus and Slaughterhouse Prayer. In terms of imagination, it has pulled me towards The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler, added to ideas I have for a follow-up set further into the future. There is a whirlpool in my head where those three novels keep spinning, even though I am trying to focus on other writing.

Irvine : I’ve been working hard and on one level it’s been great as writer thrive on isolation. But you need to get out for a tear; get pissed in the boozer with your mates, shout your lungs out at the football, dance in a nightclub, relax in the cinema, marvel at the power and athleticism of the ballet at Sadlers Wells…these things fire the imagination. You need to replenish the well. I’m also finding it harder to concentrate, writing in 20 minute rather than 3 hour bursts.

Can you imagine how you could have lived under these sanitary rules in your twenties? Do you think your characters, such as Tom or Matt, would respect/have respect(ed) the social distancing?

John : Good question. It would have been more difficult in my twenties I am sure, but would there have been the same sort of crackdown without the internet I wonder? At least if I was in my twenties I wouldn’t have this sense of losing precious time. Tommy and Matt would respect the social-distancing measures for sure, but Darren maybe not so much. Pat would be dedicated and do everything by the book. They would all be out working and exposed. Robert Marsh would talk a lot about doing the right thing, but make exceptions for himself, justify his actions, while Chris Bradley would be dismissive. Those two would be able to work from home.

Irvine : Oh there would have been a revolution by now. We would have been out on the streets. The young are atomized by technology now, it’s not their fault, there’s just no street culture.

Even if completely different, the three novellas are all full of fun, rage, violence, melancholy, love and hate, empathy. They work well together. How do you explain that deep coherence?

John : I was really pleased about that, but it wasn’t planned. We wrote what we wanted and the stories came together as a whole. We have been friends for twenty-five years, although that wouldn’t be the reason, but we share a culture and a view of the world, have the same sense of humour, like similar music and literature, enjoy a good drink. I am not sure of the answer to this question. It just worked naturally. Maybe deep down I always felt it would.

Irvine : I’m not sure I can, other than an overlapping literary aesthetic between John, Alan and myself. This book and this Covid nonsense has made me realise how much I love and miss those guys and I’m looking forward to seeing them when this is over.

Interview published in New Noise n°57 – May-June 2021

One is not born but becomes

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Published by John King in Verbal Issue 7

ONE IS NOT BORN BUT BECOMES by Marianne Peyronnet

Bonjour. Let me introduce myself. My name is Charles. Please, don’t laugh. It’s not funny. My name is definitely Charles. Yes, I know… Blame my mother. She had this great idea. When I was born she asked herself: ‘What can I do to make his life miserable? I know, let’s call him Charles!’ My father certainly did what he does best, he looked the other way. I’ve tried different solutions, so as not to be considered a snob petty-bourgeois, which I am certainly not. I was very proud, for a while, of the nickname I chose: King Charles. I thought it was ironic, for a Frenchman, to be a king. I thought it sounded so English too, so classy, until I realised it was a breed of dog. I am not a kind of dog, although I have been a kind of a loser since the beginning of my short existence.

But that will change, because I am becoming a punk. Yes, my name is Charles. Yes, I am fourteen years old. Yes, I am French… Yet soon I will hug and kiss the girl of my dreams. Looking at myself in the bathroom mirror this morning, it was obvious to me, and it will be obvious to her too. I will soon be completely, absolutely, fully a punk. For the moment, I am still becoming one. Yes, becoming. What do you think? That one is born a punk? That Johnny Rotten was born with orange hair and decayed teeth? No. It is a slow process. It is a choice, a thought that develops and changes you forever.

The first time I saw punks was on TV. On the eight o’clock news. First channel. In London, young men and women with strange haircuts were wearing strange clothes. The background music was weird. They laughed and shouted and one of them showed his buttocks to the camera.

It was a fleeting glimpse that my father interrupted, ordering me to change the channel: ‘We’re trying to eat, man! Do they think there aren’t enough horrors in the world, these Rosbif guys? Always showing off!’ Then he relaxed and finished his potatoes quietly, captivated by reassuring images of black children with nothing on, except flies on their faces, and nothing in their deformed stomachs. It wasn’t at this specific moment that I decided to become a punk. I was too young. It was 1977 and I was only ten. But when I saw that girl in the school courtyard, with her shaggy hair and sooty eyes, I remembered the guys on the screen. There was no doubt, I would be one of them: (1) To express my own singular personality, (2) to upset my parents, and (3) to please her.

It has been a few months since my transformation began. Soon the pathetic worm I once was will become a terrible insect (not a butterfly though, butterflies suck). Watch out, good people. Here I come.

I reckon I am already halfway through the process.

It takes a long time. Do you think it’s easy? That it doesn’t require hard work? No, it is like the kung-fu movies, when the nice little lad is fed up with being beaten by bullies and becomes a kung-fu expert, and his vengeance is terrific. It is the same as far as my metamorphosis is concerned. In fact, it is harder, because in the movies there is always a master to help the nice little guy, and I have to handle this on my own. There is no chance of my brother being my guide. He is five years older than me and could have helped, but no… Of course, he loves music. But he’s stuck in a disgusting past – Genesis, Led Zeppelin… Everything I hate. Boring ten-minute guitar solos and embarrassing skin-tight trousers.

I had to launch myself on the rising road of my cultural revolution. And I started at the beginning. I went to the record shop and bought the Sex Pistols album. The yellow one. I was not completely stupid; I knew the Sex Pistols were the beginning. It was a slap in the face, my friends. Where was I before? Rotten was screaming for me. He woke me from a coma. Set me on edge. And not only me. As I sensed, I could fulfill my second reason for becoming a punk very easily: my parents were upset. They still are. They are upset when I come back from school and listen to ‘God Save The Queen’ very loud, they are upset in the evening when they watch TV, and on Sunday morning too.

I am growing up.

After the Pistols, my education has been easy. The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Buzzcocks, 999, Dead Kennedys, The Ramones… The record dealer is very nice. He lets me listen to what I want, when there aren’t too many people in his shop. He is friendly, even though I spend so much time and so little money there. My pocket money can’t match my desires, so I have to be cautious when I buy an LP. The vinyl crepe goes round and round in circles till it feels dizzy. And the sleeve is examined in every detail. Pictures of the bands are what I love best. Appearance matters. And I look like those boys. Not too handsome. Not too burly. Rather thin and crumbly, like a cracker. I’ve bought a second-hand pair of Doc Martens. They are too big for me, so my feet look huge and my calves seem skinny. I like that. It allows me to achieve my first aim inexpensively.

Two weeks ago I cut my hair and that second reason jumped to the top of the list. I took scissors and cut strands off the top of my head. My mother didn’t like that. She grabbed me by the arm and shook me as if I was five years old. ‘What the hell goes on inside your head?’ she said. ‘On my head,’ I replied. She didn’t burst out laughing. She didn’t like my Billy Idol grin either. A smack was close, but what could she do? Glue the hair back on? My father just said that he would never walk next to me in the street again. Won’t you, Dad?

They have nothing to really complain about. My grades have improved significantly, especially in English. I have learnt a lot of words through trying to understand what the bands are saying in their songs, and my accent has become good since I started screaming their lyrics, at least those that are written out and come with the record. When they are not, I try to decipher them and I write them in a notebook. I am very good. Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker now… Punk punk punk rocker, punk punk punk rocker, punk punk punk rocker… Just kidding. Most of the time, I leave holes in the sentences and it sounds like this: White riot, I want a riot, White riot, A riot na na na, or like this: Neat Neat Neat na na na na na na Neat Neat Neat na na na na na na… at all.

Please, don’t make fun of me. I deserve to be respected for my bilingual dictionary, and at least I know what Neat means. And I started reading books. Yes, I did. No choice. If someone asks me questions about what the bands say in interviews, I should be able to answer. Punks are so clever. Now I know everything about anarchy, si-tu-a-tio-nism, rebellion, and bollocks.

On the other hand, girls are not a subject that I am mastering.

Nevertheless I progressed significantly last Saturday when I kissed Fat Fifine. My evil plan worked like a charm. Here’s the thing: I am fourteen and had never kissed a girl. Shame on me! And if I wanted to achieve my third aim, I didn’t feel comfortable seducing the most beautiful girl in the world with no experience. So I decided to experiment with what I had to hand, that is to say, Fat Fifine. Delphine, that’s her name. The daughter of my parents’ friends. I only call her Fat Fifine in my head. I am a gentleman. Our parents are friends and they have dinner together every weekend. Last Saturday, they came to my home. And as usual, as they were about to have their pre-dinner drinks, my mother asked me: ‘Why don’t you take Delphine to your room. You could listen to your records. You are really not very smart. Look at her! How gorgeous she is!’ And my father added: ‘If I was your age…’ And her parents laughed: ‘Behave yourselves.’

What else were we supposed to do? We couldn’t just stay in the living room and watch them get drunk and listen to their bullshit, so I brought Fat Fifine to my room. Usually we sit on the floor, I put some music on until my mum calls us for dinner. When Fat Fifine talks, I turn the volume up, so that I don’t know what she’s thinking about. I guess she loves me. She keeps staring at me and pretends to like The Clash. Even if she is rather ugly, I said to myself: ‘What could go wrong?’ After all, she seemed to be consenting, and as we are not in the same school, she was not going to brag to people I knew.

I knocked her over on the bed before she could start to open her mouth. As I expected she let me kiss her and touch her breast a little. It was as I thought it would be, more or less. Wet. Soft. But at least I could teach myself to French kiss a girl. Then I stopped, put ‘Fresh Food For Rotting Vegetables’ on, and said: ‘Thank you’. You see, I am well-mannered. When we came back into the living room she was just a little redder than usual and she had lost a barrette. Her father was speaking loud and my mother was giggling like a guinea pig. Saturday night fever…

Well, it has allowed me to loosen up. I am ready. I can feel it. I am ready to become the happiest man on earth. I am about to go out with the most fascinating girl in the history of mankind. I’ve got it covered. I’ve been spying on her for weeks. I’ve been standing at the corner of the street she takes alone every morning. To get her used to seeing me, I’ve been there every day for a month, trying to look smart and mysterious, pretending not to be interested, casually lighting a cigarette and looking at her through the plumes of smoke. I can see that she pretends not be interested either. She never looks at me. Cheeky girl.

Today is the day. I woke up early. I have polished my look: black trousers, favourite shoes, scruffy hair. I have walked the streets with the classy gait I have rehearsed: my back straight, shoulders rearward, taking great steps, staring at the horizon. I know exactly what I am going to say to her: ‘I have noticed that you like Siouxsie,’ and she will reply: ‘Yes, I do’. Something like that. Then I will say: ‘You look just like her,’ and after I will confess to having been attracted to her for a long time. I will tell her we have a lot in common, that I love punk bands too, that I think she’s very pretty with her kilt and ripped tights, that I love her more than anything, that we could be Sid and Nancy, that I could lend her my records…

Here she comes. She has five steps to take and I will never be lonely again. 5, 4, 3… I can hardly count. I feel as if the veins in my neck are going to explode. I clear my throat. The last thing I want is a falsetto voice. 2… I slide forward slightly to stand in her way. She must not miss me. Go, go, go. I take the plunge. 1…

‘Hi. I have noticed that you like Siouxsie…’

‘Get out of my way, moron.’

‘ ––––––– ’

I guess it’s going to take longer than I expected.

Mark SaFranko (english version)

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Photos : Ferdinand Wozniak

Your work, especially when it is related to your cycle featuring your alter ego Max Zajack (Hating OliviaLounge LizardGod Bless AmericaDirty Work), is very often associated by critics to dirty realism. This literary current, born in the 80s, embodied by writers like Bukowski, Carver or John Fante, pushes American dispossessed and common people to the fore and is identifiable from its minimalist style and use of simple words. Do you consider your work can be filed under that literary movement, or any other?

In the case of the Zajack novels, probably. But in my estimation labels are generally misleading because the lines between where one category begins and another ends are greatly blurred. If the Zajack novels are dirty realism, my other novels and stories – the majority of my work — would splay across such genres as literary, character-driven, psychological fiction, suspense, even horror at times.  I don’t know. I suppose it’s for other people to determine.

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What strikes reading your novels is their apparent simplicity. They sound so real, as if they wouldn’t have needed any effort to be written. I know it is extremely hard to be so true, above all as regards the dialogues. How do you work? Do you weigh each word? Do you make a lot of corrections?

Your observation is very interesting. Over the years I’ve been in the process of stripping the prose down into its most rudimentary form, if at all possible. But I started out as a much different writer. The novels and stories – as well as everything else — go through endless revision. I’m never finished tweaking my work, even, in many cases, after it’s published.  So the simplicity is in some ways an illusion: after ten or twelve or fourteen revisions, the work is in what I would call in a more slick state. And yes, every single word is weighed, then weighed again — and again. Many times they are entirely eradicated. As a writer you learn many tricks over time to achieve this so-called simplicity and readability. Yet every piece presents a set of new challenges. It’s a never-ending process, really. And this keeps the act of writing alive.

Do you think that the writers who gave you the desire to be a writer yourself (Henry Miller, Georges Simenon, Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoievski…) have an influence on your work?

No question. I take something from every writer I fall in love with, from Patricia Highsmith to Pascal Garnier. It might be philosophically, perhaps stylistically, maybe something else. You know what they say: good writers borrow, great writers steal. Whether it’s transparent or not, I try to be a very good and discreet thief.

Your Max Zajack novels are confessional, autobiographic novels. In France, we have a literary movement called autofiction, but for me these authors only gaze at their own navel. How do you manage to touch people with your own personal experiences? How do you transform your life into a work of art?

That is a very good question, and one I don’t know that I have an adequate answer for. I suppose I’ve been lucky that my readers find some identification with whatever dilemmas my characters, including Max Zajack, find themselves confronted with. And maybe it’s because I have no problem laughing at myself.

Does one have to like to talk about oneself to be a writer? Do your books say a lot about you, even when they are not autobiographical?

Unfortunately I love to talk, and talk about myself, and inevitably many of my life’s greatest concerns — love, death, passion, murder, art – make their way into my work. And yes, my books probably say a lot about what goes on inside me, including all of my doubts and contradictions and fears. But I never, ever talk about what I’m working on until I’m finished. On the few occasions when I’ve done that, whatever I thought I was working on didn’t get written. It got talked away and at the same time betrayed grave doubts about what I thought I was going to do. For me there has to be a compression of psychic energy that makes its way onto the page and it can’t be emitted prematurely at the risk of squandering it altogether.

Do your use of the pronoun « I » obliges you to say the truth?

Exactly the opposite! I think it creates the illusion of truth. I like to say that as soon as pen collides with paper, the truth is abandoned, especially when writing in the first person. You’re dealing with poses, illusions, deceptions. There are so many existential realities brought to bear upon even a moment of “the truth” – whatever that is — that it’s impossible to write it. And for the purposes of literary value, it’s not altogether feasible. Certain people have tried. Proust leaps to mind. Celine. Henry Miller. Many, many others, of course. But perhaps “the truth” is best approached from another angle.

Do you think that anyone can be an artist?

Depending on your definition of artist, yes. It’s a very loose term nowadays, isn’t it? I have my own definition of the term, but it seems to clash with the world’s current view. I’m old-fashioned in that sense.

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Bukowski had alcohol. Rob Roberge had dope. You had Olivia, among others. Would you say that one needs to have experienced life to be a writer?

Yes, but I’m not sure that the addictions you mention qualify as life. Part of it, sure, but I tend to think of them, including my own, as clichés. By now they are really tiresome and dull, I think. It was much more interesting when certain issues were hidden or not talked about in literature and the energy from it erupted elsewhere. Because those afflictions in themselves aren’t life. Life is a cosmic octopus spreading in all directions. Real life is walking the dog, and going to the doctor, and reporting to the job every day. And every thought and action that goes hand in hand with those so-called mundane activities. Being a writer is a combination of a multitude of things: compulsions, insecurities, perception, ability, as well as a whole universe of other things related to life. And we are all living, every single minute, to at least some degree. I think what you’re talking about is something – I hate to say something like “wisdom” – born of experience. And the older one grows, the more of it one accumulates.  That’s life. I don’t think you can have much of it at the age of eighteen or twenty.

Max has always known that he would be a writer. Has it always been obvious as far as you are concerned? Was it impossible for you not to write?

Well, I was very young when I naively went after it. At that point it was a fantasy more than anything else. I didn’t know what to do and I had no clue what I was doing. On one level I still don’t. But the compulsion took hold quickly and never left. When you have the compulsion you might be able to turn it into something of value. But not always. As Patricia Highsmith once said, “Art is an addiction. That’s why there are so many bad artists.” So there’s probably something more than persistence involved. And you can never underestimate the power of luck – and the right connections.

Have you ever asked yourself why you write?

Yes, every single day. I don’t know the answer, and now it’s too late to care.

Your novels The Suicide and Un Faux Pas present another form of fiction. They are dark novels. Did you work differently to build them? Did you have a more precise plan?

For me they just feel like another part of the same process. But those novels are constructed quite differently, actually, since they are a little more dependent on a tight plot. That said, many unexpected things happen when writing a novel or story. You can’t always predict where things will go. I never do, that’s for sure.

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In all your novels, the relationships between men and women are violent, troubled, and passionate. Except sex, they don’t share a lot, no tenderness, no complicity. Do you think, like Max, that a man can’t understand a woman?

Is it really that bad? I hope not. Anyway, that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I don’t know that any of us can be understood. Understanding another person, man or woman, is a huge ocean to cross. I don’t know that it can be done.

Or don’t you think it is very hard to understand Max, or you, especially for a woman?

I suppose you would have to ask them.

Do you reckon happiness is not worth being written?

I suppose it would be if it were interesting enough. But perhaps the operative word should be contentment. Because we’re all discontent to some degree, aren’t we? Restlessness keeps everything in creation in motion, even if it’s only on the inside. That’s more interesting than happiness, I think.

I’ve read that you are not interested in politics. Don’t you think that any work of art is political?

I was told in France recently that my work is political despite the fact that I’m indifferent to the subject. That may be true. I’m highly aware of what goes on in the world, but not interested in the game of politics – that’s probably a more accurate way of answering the question. And I suppose you can always ascribe some political stance to any piece of art if you want to. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

You have written a lot of short stories. You even said that it is what you liked most. What is a good short story for you?

Impossible to answer, but you know it when you read it. There are so many great ones, and of so many various species, that it’s hard to pick even a few. But some that leap to mind are “Don’t Look Now,” by Daphne Du Maurier. And “Death In Midsummer” by Yukio Mishima. “Death In Venice,” Thomas Mann. Almost everything that Raymond Carver wrote. The majority of Highsmith’s stories. Everything by Paul Bowles. Chekov, Tolstoy, Isaac Singer. And so many, many more. I seem to be less interested in current stories, I must admit — anyway, the ones I’ve read recently.

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What is the difference between writing a novel and a short story?

The process is quite different, obviously. I prefer to write the first draft of a story quickly, in one day if possible. It has to do with energy, thrust, momentum, capturing lightning. Of course I’ll work on it after that point for months, even years. With the novel you’re faced with filling a much larger canvas, though I also like to get that first draft down as quickly as possible as well. The short story has to do with perfection, in the end, the novel with complexity. That’s a very simplistic way of describing the difference.

And, as you are a poet, a painter and a musician too, what’s the difference between writing fiction, songs, poetry, and painting?

When painting, I find an entire part of my brain shuts off. It’s a pleasurable feeling, a form of Zen meditation. Of course what disrupts it is that I become frustrated because I can’t execute what I set out to do on account of my shortcomings! For me, poetry embodies some sort of moment of enlightenment, a philosophical realization that often materializes first thing in the morning upon opening my eyes. Music originates from yet somewhere else. It’s hard to describe. It’s often pure feeling, especially when composing instrumental music. When lyrics are involved, it’s something else, because that involves an altogether different facility, and getting them to fit properly with a melody and chord sequence require a different skill again. I could go into greater detail on all of them, but we’d be here forever.

Snug Harbor with guitar

You have had a lot of jobs during your lifetime : political risk analyst, dating advice ghostwriter, freight loader, teacher, landscaper’s assistant, deliveryman, truck driver, clothes salesman, astrologer, short order cook, fast food worker, bank clerk, proofreader, bar musician, government pensions clerk, brewery worker, reporter, telephone solicitor, stock clerk, and chauffeur. Can you make a living as a writer now?

Well, the answer is what kind of living we’re talking about. You know, the publishing world is about money. Nothing but money. For the publishers and agents it’s a business, nothing more. They need to pay rent and make a profit. So as a writer if you sell in sufficient quantities, you’ll be in the business with them. If not, you’re out of the game. This is a hard and fast truth. It’s extraordinarily difficult to make money as a writer today. I certainly can’t say I make a good living. I seem to be viewed as a “cult” writer, whatever that means, but it’s definitely equated with making lots of money. But it’s a deadly mistake to equate art of distinction or merit with making money. One really has nothing to do with the other.

There are lots of references to divinatory arts in your novels. Do you believe in fate? Would you like to know yours?

I do believe in fate, but I think it’s impossible to know what it is for oneself aside from intimations here and there, and those can be misleading. We are the blind leading the blind. Nobody knows anything, in my estimation. As Celine once wrote somewhere, and I’m paraphrasing, “All we see in life is mystery upon mystery.” I think that’s our fate.

You are such a prolific artist. Does this express your fear of dying? Do you think there is something after death?

Perhaps my compulsions do hide the fear of dying, I don’t know. On a conscious level, all I’m aware of is feeling the constant urge to do something. Producing something for some reason is supremely important to me. Time seems precious, and I loathe wasting it. And pretty much all artistic activity entices me; often I don’t care whether the result is considered conventionally valid or good. As for the second question, it’s the ultimate one, isn’t it? I have no idea whether there’s something beyond the grave. My only objection to the non-believer is, what makes you so sure there’s nothing? That rigidity is too dogmatic for me. But I freely admit to my cosmic uncertainties. Recently I’ve been intrigued by the thought that we might be met with a completely unimagined reality after death. What if there is something, and that something is beyond our wildest imaginations? Who knows? And maybe in the end it is nothing but the big sleep from which we never wake up….

Or, being influenced by French philosophers like Sartre or Camus, do you feel that the most absurd would be to have lived for nothing, without having produced anything?

Beyond my own urges, I don’t place any particular value on either activity or idleness. What does living for nothing mean? If I was able, I would love to do nothing at all, take it easy, and be content with that. The beach and a palm tree and a hammock — that would be my ideal situation. I’m incapable of it, sadly.

To talk about your work without underlining your sense of humour would be unfair. Readers laugh a lot thanks to Max’s irony, or when you play with clichés about the genres, in Un faux pas, for instance. Is your humour a shield against despair?

For me, so much of life is naturally funny. Mostly our defeats and agonies and pain. And the absurdity of it all. Without the shield of laughter, there’s truly nothing. What was it Rabelais said? “For all your ills I give you laughter.”

French people love your work. It seems that you are even more popular here than in the United States. How do you explain that?

There’s no question that I have much more of an audience in France than anywhere else. I feel incredibly fortunate for that. But not everybody loves me, even in France, the land of writers. In America they don’t seem to understand what I’m doing at all – or they don’t care. Without the French I’d be dead as a writer. There seems to be a natural affinity between myself and my French readers and the many people I’ve met in France. I’m eternally grateful for it. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say that the country has a long history of providing a home for marginalized or misunderstood American writers. The names of course are familiar. Why? It’s a complicated answer, and I’m not sure I understand it myself. The French are a singular people. It’s not easy to understand them and their predilections. What that says about me as a writer, I don’t know.

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You have spent some time in France last year. What do you like and dislike in our country? Can you speak French a little?

I’ve been spending time in France for the past ten years, ever since Putain D’Olivia was published by the now-vanished 13E Note Editions. It’s become my second home in many ways. I love almost everything about the country except for one or two things. It’s extremely difficult to find good pizza. The French put sugar on popcorn, a no-no. Otherwise, it’s perfect. I can speak French a little — a very little. It’s a frustration for me. Understanding when people speak is rough – everyone talks too fast. Luckily for me, almost everyone in France has enough English for me to get by.

Interview published in New Noise n°53 – May-??? 2020

Lisa McInerney (english version)

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Photos : Brid O’Donovan
Some of your characters of The Glorious Heresies, your first novel, come back in The Blood Miracles. I’ve read that you are writing a third novel where the same figures are still present. Had you decided to write a trilogy from the beginning, or have you found you have more to say about them while writing?

I had the vague idea at the beginning that this would be a trilogy, and that I’d very loosely base the novels on the hendiatris “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Which means that the rock ‘n’ roll novel’s coming next. I had most of the main characters in my head for years before I started writing, so I knew that they had more to say to me than would fit in one book. And the concept for The Blood Miracles existed before the concept for The Glorious Heresies. It’s all quite jumbled in my head, so there’s a lot of work in ironing it all out, figuring out what happens when, and to whom.

I’ve thought of Irvine Welsh’s books reading your novels. Like you, he presents flamboyant losers, follows their courses through different novels, and explores their environment and languages… Do you like his work? Do you think some authors have an influence on your work?

I read Trainspotting when I was a teenager and I could hardly make sense of it – here was this untamed, rule-breaking, expansive collection of narratives, like nothing I’d read before. Some of the images I got from Welsh’s work when I first read him, at the age of maybe 15 or 16, are still in my head, from the chapters ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Eating Out’ in particular. Discovering the likes of Irvine Welsh and Pat McCabe in my teens really changed the way I thought about writing, and opened my mind to the various ways writers can twist stories and manipulate readers. I think that’s when I was most open to influence. I don’t think authors I read as an adult have had the same effect on me or how I thought about writing, probably because I’m obviously more sure of my own style now.

You immediately gained success and won the Baileys women’s prize for fiction and the Desmond Elliott prize for The Glorious Heresies. Have these distinctions been an encouragement to continue or, on the contrary, has it put pressure on you?

It’s a mix, really. Right now it feels wholly encouraging, like it’s proof that I was doing the right thing all along, that I’m meant to be writing. But before The Blood Miracles was published, I worried that it meant people would be expecting Heresies 2, and wouldn’t want to read a novel with a different tone and a sharper focus. Then The Blood Miracles was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Dublin Literary Award, and won the RSL Encore Award, so I suppose I needn’t have been so anxious about it.

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The action takes place in Cork. Could your characters have lived elsewhere in Ireland?

It’s a very particularly Irish story, so a lot of the experiences the characters have had could happen to anyone in any part of the country. But in terms of the size of the community the characters come from, the chances for the kind of coincidences that make the action possible, and so on, Cork is the right place for this story. The events of The Blood Miracles take place where there’s a port and access to the Irish black market through that port, so it’s very definitely Cork. Cork has a very distinctive feel and rhythm. It’s the Republic’s second city and it acts as all second cities do – with a kind of endearing arrogance and a chip on its shoulder. And the way that the characters speak is particular to Cork. The way we speak is so important – the language we use defines how we look at the world. The characters are Corkonians. They wouldn’t be themselves if they were from anywhere else. They’d have grown up with different accents, vocabularies, different experiences of their landscapes, different ways of thinking about Ireland. . . Without Cork, the whole thing changes.

Do your consider Cork as the Arse End of Ireland, from the name of your blog?

Not at all! While I was blogging, I moved from the west of Ireland to Cork, which you might think meant I moved from the arse of the country to the city. But the funny thing is, everyone in Ireland thinks that their area of Ireland is the most forgotten about, the most disadvantaged or misunderstood. So anyone can be from the arse end of Ireland. It’s a state of mind, not a geographical location.

I’ve seen that your novels, because they are very good, have been described as masculine books. It should have made you angry, shouldn’t it?

It used to confuse me more than make me angry. I’m not really confused or irritated by it now. Probably because I drew so much attention to it back when Heresies was published that no one’s tried to say it since! I suppose it was intriguing for me, more than anything else. I think it’s because we’re so used to gritty urban literature, rife with sex, drugs, crime and slang, being written by men. Or maybe because so many of my characters are men – all of Miracles is told from Ryan’s perspective. Maybe it’s because The Glorious Heresies is undeniably a state-of-the-nation novel, when many conservative readers and commentators still think that women write domestic stories. Maybe it’s because I use the word “fuck” so much. Who knows?

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The narrative construction of your novels is incredible. The characters seem to be drawn in a matrix that link them one to another. How did you compose the elements of your story? Do you work from a detailed plan?

I don’t! It all comes from character. When you spend a lot of time getting to know a character, in your own head, putting them into this situation or asking them to react to that particular thing, you can easily see where they might fit in their own world and who might be connected to them. When I started Heresies with Maureen having just accidentally killed a man, I knew straight away that she was Jimmy’s mother, that Jimmy was Tony’s old friend, that Tony was Ryan’s father. When a character comes together in my head I don’t just want to know who he is, but who his parents are, who he loves, who he’s friends with, and so on. And then those characters become intriguing to me. So how they are all connected is part of that world-building. I know how one character’s action might affect another character, and then I ask myself what that affected character might do, and what that action might mean in the world of the story. It’s all quite organic, really. I give the characters something to react to, and I follow them from there.

I love the titles you gave to your novels. They are paradoxical, ambiguous towards religion, enigmatic. What did you want to express through them? Can we know the title of your third one?

I didn’t decide on The Glorious Heresies as a title until the very last moment. I couldn’t find the right title for so long, nothing that would encapsulate everything I wanted to say and the variety of life in the book. In the end it came to me – it’s a twist on the glorious mysteries of the rosary, which is an important prayer in the Marian tradition of Catholicism. Catholicism permeates so much of the everyday in Irish life, whether or not we still believe; it’s worked its way into the fabric of the place. It made sense to corrupt a religious sentiment for the title, because that’s such a huge part of what the book’s all about. I wanted to continue that for the second book. The Blood Miracles refers to the blood miracle of San Gennaro in Naples, which is the city Ryan’s mother is from. And Ryan’s blood – that mix of Irish and Italian – gets him in and out of trouble repeatedly throughout the events of the book. As for the third title, I won’t say. I always decide titles with my editor, so until he says he’s happy with it, I won’t tell anyone what I’ve been thinking. But it fits with the other two!

From France, it seems that Ireland is deeply changing, and that these changes come from the will of the people. I think about abortion rights, gay marriages, and end of punishment for blasphemy. Are they the signs of the decline of the weight of Catholic Church on people’s life, and especially on women’s life?

Oh, of course. The truth is that the authority of the Catholic Church had been in decline for years, but it collapsed in the ‘90s with the scandals around child abuse, the abuse of the ‘Magdalene’ women, industrial schools, cover-ups of crimes committed by members of the church, and so on. How could anyone look for moral or spiritual guidance from such an organisation? The rituals still remain: many Irish couples still marry in church or baptise their children, for example. And it’s in our language: to say hello in Irish, you say ‘Dia duit’ — God be with you. To respond you say, ‘Dia is Muire duit’ — God and Mary be with you!

But Mass attendance has dropped dramatically, and the Irish people are no longer interested in what the Vatican has to say about reproduction or marriage or LGBT people. The marriage equality referendum and the abortion rights referendum both passed by a landslide: grassroots campaigners went up against the wealth and influence of the Catholic church and American pro-life lobby groups, and won. Emphatically. I don’t think the Irish want to be told what to do by anyone anymore. We’ve had enough of it.

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Do you think that what happened to Maureen, or in Magdalene’s asylums for instance, is part of Irish History now, that women are equal to men, at last?

We’ve come a long way. There are some things that could be improved for everyone, regardless of gender. Affordable childcare, better maternity and paternity leave, better support for single-parent families, especially in terms of housing or assistance for working single parents. More attention in these areas will help us achieve full equality. Better sex education, tackling consent and including LGBT issues. More resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence, better conviction rates and working towards the people having more faith in the legal system when it comes to reporting rape, assault and abuse. But these are areas every country needs to work on, not specific to Ireland. We’re doing well, far from the days where ‘fallen’ women were locked away and the bishops told men that they had authority over their wives’ bodies. We just have to keep going.

In your novels, the girls ((Karine and Natalie) are doing better than boys. Is it only because they come from a better environment?

Pretty much. Karine comes from the same part of Cork City as Ryan, but she has supportive parents who are determined that she does well. And Natalie is from a middle-class area, with parents who expect her to succeed. She’s not exactly a nice person, though. Natalie is doing better than Ryan in terms of education and prospects, but I think he’s a kinder person that she is, deep down.

Of course, there’s gender-specific context. Even if Karine didn’t have such caring parents, she probably wouldn’t have started dealing drugs, like her boyfriend did. As a girl she certainly wouldn’t have been encouraged to take a chance in such a dangerous world. As a boy, Ryan was expected to be able to cope with the messes he got himself into. We dismiss troubled teenage boys quicker than we do teenage girls, I think. There’s a reason all of the people Ryan works for and with are men.

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Do you consider Ryan as a victim?

That’s a tough one! His mother died when he was eleven and he has a difficult relationship with his alcoholic father. He started dealing drugs at only fourteen, so is it fair to assume he was able to understand what he was getting himself into, that he could consent to it? Legally he was too young to leave school, to leave home, to have sex, to drink or smoke or vote or work. You might argue that as he grew older he could realise that he was making terrible choices, hurting himself, his loved ones, his community and his country. At the start of The Blood Miracles he’s twenty years of age, legally an adult. But would it have been so easy for him to turn his back on that business and the people he worked with? It’s not like he could have asked for a redundancy package. I don’t like to tell the reader how to take Ryan: it’s up to them, and there are plenty of readers who love him, and plenty of readers who think he’s terrible! You either have room to forgive him, or you don’t.

Does he make mistakes also because he does not how to say ‘I love you”, that he does not have the words to express his feelings?

Ah, he does have the words. He has the words in more than one language. He found it difficult to tell Karine he loved her when he was fifteen, but what fifteen-year-old boy wouldn’t struggle with that? He has no problem with telling her he loves her from that point. If anything he has the opposite problem: he says things easily, he finds it much harder to back up his words with actions. Not that he’s an unrepentant liar, but words are cheap. In terms of the relationship between him and his father, I wouldn’t say either have said they loved the other since Ryan was little. But that’s not unusual in Ireland, and boys, especially working-class boys, are encouraged to ‘control’ their emotions, and hide their vulnerabilities.

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Maureen does have a way with words. Doesn’t she have a very Irish sense of humour?

I’ve always said so, but now I think that all cultures find humour in the same places. Ireland certainly isn’t the only country with an inclination towards gallows humour. That said, Maureen obviously has a very Irish way of speaking. Our dialect of English, Hiberno-English, is distinguished by playfulness and verbosity. We’re storytellers and embellishers, and wit is more important than truth. And a sentence that provokes a strong reaction is the most useful sentence. All of these qualities are present in Maureen. She’s pure cute, and ‘pure cute’ in Ireland doesn’t mean wholesome and sweet. It means extremely wily.

Alcoholism, poverty, violence, weight of familial and religious traditions… Can we see your work as a new exploration of classical themes of Irish literature?

I don’t know, but I won’t complain if that’s what you want to do! But then, aren’t they universal themes?

Do you fear the consequences of Brexit on Ireland?

Naturally. It’s an unadulterated disaster — ill-advised, insincere, implemented by idiots. And Ireland is the only EU country with a land border to the United Kingdom, a fact that they seemingly forgot until after the vote. On top of that, Northern Ireland is not just a constituency of the UK – it’s also part of Ireland, and its population have the legal right to identify as Irish and carry Irish passports if they choose to. Therefore the Republic has an equal responsibility to its people in the North. Our people are linked, our cultures are linked, our economies are linked, we depend on each other and you can’t separate us without doing a huge amount of damage. Brexit threatens to undo everything previous generations and governments worked so hard to achieve, and the English government couldn’t care less.

Are your novels a cry of love or of hate towards Ireland?

Love. Always love. You can love your country and still see its flaws. In fact, if you don’t see its flaws, can you really claim to love your country?

Interview published in New Noise N°49 – summer 2019

Slaughterhouse Prayer. John King (english version)

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John King has been a vegetarian/vegan since the beginning of the 80’s. He decided not to eat meat long before the current interest of the food industry in this trend. The choice was not, for him, a healthier way to eat but was the result of a deep awareness. To be a vegan means living an ethical life, based on a moral code. On a subject he cares so much about, a project he has been thinking about for ten years, he could not fail. And he has succeeded in writing a monumental work of art. Slaughterhouse Prayer is much more than a brilliant advocacy of veganism. It is not a militant book, in the dogmatic sense of the word. John King is far too clever just to make a final judgement on his fellow men. He is not a know-it-all. He does not try to guilt trip his reader, which would be counterproductive. He does not preach. Slaughterhouse Prayer is not (only) for convinced ones, it talks to everybody. King lets people make their own way, do their soul-searching. And it really hurts. He moves you through fiction, in a sensitive, dreadful novel you will need time to process. You are going to be sincerely upset, profoundly messed up, totally overwhelmed.

The novel tells the story of the main character, Michael Tanner, at three different stages of his existence, in a non linear narrative, made of flashbacks and memories mixed with moments of Michael’s present life, as he is now a mature man. So, three Michaels relay the story, and the spot is tense until the end. Little boy Michael, during a visit at his grand-father’s in the country, understands that animals are killed to be eaten, that sausages are made of dead flesh. And they are not only killed. They are humiliated, insulted, raped, tortured. And nobody cares because they are only animals and have no consciousness, feel no pain, don’t think, have no emotions or memories. As a young man, Michael becomes a radical animal rights activist and questions the justification of violence towards men in order to protect the non-human animals. Later, Michael, calmed down but still not eased, splits up with his world. Will he find peace at last?

To make you feel, that’s John King’s whole talent. First, he enables his reader to understand the permanent aggression you suffer when you are a vegan in a meat-eater environment. The ads, the smells, the leather, everything reminds you the horrors the others refuse to see. And these horrors, King describes them in unbearable passages where animals, a pig, a lamb, a bull become Peter, Mary or John. They tell what they endure; they share their fears and pains. These scenes are terrifying because King translates their thoughts simply, from their point of view. He demonstrates there all his writing skill, as he examines by the way our use of language. When we call a man a smelly pig or a woman a dirty cow, we show our contempt towards beings we don’t only kill but also humiliate.

I am not a vegan, even not a vegetarian. I am one of those who look away. I am one of these hypocrites who put up with this awful lie. So, Yes John, I feel like shit. But thank you for not judging me as a person, for having allowed me to read Slaughterhouse Prayer without excluding me, for giving me a chance to become better. Thank you for this sentence: « but these were his brothers and sisters and he needed to believe that his species was weak rather than evil. They were big babies, overgrown kids building snowmen and adding carrot noses. He needed to belong. He didn’t want to be alone. » Thank you for your love of humankind, after all, for your sweet pages on its gardens, pubs, music and books.

The future is unwritten, but it will be vegan one day, for sure.

Slaughterhouse Prayer / John King. London Books, 2018

Viv Albertine (english version)

Credit Laura Hynd
photo : Laura Hynd
Your first autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys was published in 2014. Then, you have written a second one To Throw Away Unopened, released in April 2018. I guess that the death of your mother, and the finding of the bag containing her diaries, have been too deeply touching events for you to be silenced. You have chosen to use words to express yourself, and not music. Do you find it easier now for you to express yourself through literature than through music?

Ever since the Slits disbanded in 1981 I’ve found it difficult to listen to music. The experience we had was difficult and violent and I saw behind the scenes of an industry that was  bullying and mysogynist. .

Until I was the guitarist in the Slits, music was my religion and my saviour, it was the only thing on Earth I believed in, I think that’s why I expected so much of it and why I was so disappointed when I saw what really went on behind the songs. In 2012 I felt compelled to make music again, I had to get some songs out , I felt I had something to say and I made the album The Vermilion Border but once it was recorded and I’d toured that was enough. I don’t believe in music as a career, to keep churning out records just to keep yourself in the public eye. Same with all the arts, if you’ve got nothing new to add, keep quiet.

The long form of writing excites me. To have the time and space to stretch out and go deeply into a subject is what intrigues me at the moment and I’ll do it until I don’t feel I have any more to say or until the medium doesn’t suit me anymore.

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Clothes, Clothes was written in present tense, as if you were immersed, and the reader with you, in the head of the girl you were. To Throw Away Unopened is written in past tense, whereas you talk about more recent events. Why have you chosen these different forms?

The use of the present tense in the first book came to me after I’d written a couple of chapters and as soon as I did it I knew that it was right for the book. The narrative follows me through my life and all the mistakes, obstacles and loneliness along the way. I didn’t want to use a clever narrator’s voice – me now I’d grown up – who always knew what was coming next and would give the reader warnings and pointers along the way. I wanted the reader to blunder along with me, right in the moment, not knowing if what I was doing was going to go horribly wrong or work out ok. Just like I didn’t know when I made those decisions.

I didn’t feel the present tense was right for the second book as I was looking back through my life like a detective trying to discover where my – still active – anger came from and why I so bold as to pick up an electric guitar in my early 20s when I was poor, working class, badly educated, couldn’t sing in tune and had never had a music lesson or played an instrument before. This story needed circumspection , that’s why I used the past tense. It was more of a challenge to make the prose jump off the page but I got there in the end.

The titles of your two books are both words from your mother. Did you want to pay tribute to her or was it obvious because she was the person who knew you best?

It wasn’t a conscious decision that both my book titles were expressions from my mother, but that just shows how deep mothers are in your psyche. One of my favourite books is Why be Happy When You Can be Normal by Jeanette Winterson, which is also a phrase from her mother. I think there’s probably a whole genre out there of titles that are the author’s mother’s expressions!

The lyrics of the Slits, and those of your album The Border Vermilion (2012), were very realistic, inspired by the events you were living. Were they a kind of writing experience which has led to your decision to write your autobiographies, realistic books? Are lyrics and books very different writing experiences? Do you think that you are going to write fiction, one day?

My book writing is definitely influenced by my lyric writing, which was very rigorous. Those of us involved in the so-called ‘punk’ times were always discussing songwriting. The general consensus was that the lyrics should be honest and reflect your own experience – especially as British music had become very flamboyant and Americanised in the 70s – that they should be direct and to the point, have something to say, not perpetuate conformist mores, and be succinct. I keep to this ethos in book writing. The differences between lyric and book writing are many, but what I am enjoying most is the long-form of book writing, being able to really explore an idea and let it unfold in my mind and on the page into a much deeper experience.

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You write about your mother: « She raised me to be a punk ». And in the anecdote where stupid men bother you during a gig, you write: « It comes back to you, your punk attitude, when you need it ». How would you define being a punk? Is anger an energy?

I don’t like to define myself as being a ‘punk’ as it was a word and concept invented by the media at in the 1970s and we resisted that label. The attitude I had back then is irrelevant today, we are living in such different times. Not easier times but subtler times. Punk wasn’t subtle.

About your father, you write: “If he’d been around, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or been allowed to pick up an electric guitar for a start. It wasn’t just me; none of the Slits had a father.” A father would have prevented you from doing what you wanted. Do you consider that mothers only can teach how to be punks to their daughters? Do you think you have transmitted the punk spirit to Vida?

A father in those days would have prevented us from being what we were, from being wild. It was a very strict patriarchal society back then. So even if we had fathers we loved we would have wanted to please them and that would have been constricting too. I’m not sure it is possible for a father or a man to ever really understand what a girl has to deal with and overcome physically, mentally and emotionally, to be a rebel; centuries of conditioning and her own compulsion to fit-in and be loved to start with. You have to go against yourself, it is very difficult and very uncomfortable. That’s why most women (or men) don’t choose that path.

Your mother, even if she knew you were making mistakes, always accepted your choices. She was very permissive. Are you doing the same with your daughter?

I am more cautious with my daughter than my mother was with me. My mother let me run wild and get into very dangerous situations, some of which have had a lasting, negative impact on me. I feel I have made lots of mistakes that my daughter doesn’t have to make because she is living in slightly more liberated times. But I do encourage her confidence, individuality of thought, and to trust her own judgement. The main thing I wanted for her that I didn’t have, was a good education, Once that is achieved, I’ll feel  my job is done and she can do whatever she likes, because she will always have that to come back to. My mother used to say to me ‘They can do whatever they want to you, but they can never take away your education.’ (‘They’ was the establishment). I didn’t listen to her, but I am making sure my daughter does.

The Slits refused to be reduced to a girls’ band. You wanted to be considered the same as boys and you refuted the fact of being feminists. Nevertheless you have been models to so many women, who have seen that it was possible to be on stage. You have become a feminist icon, even if you didn’t want too. Isn’t it nice to inspire other women, like The Riot Grrrls, and Carrie Brownstein, the former guitarist of Sleater-Kinney, for instance?

I am suddenly being asked all the time about why the Slits said they were not feminists, which is annoying as this is being taken out of context when it was said 40 years ago. The cheap newspapers at the time couldn’t understand what we were. They had never seen anything like us. They hated and feared us. They wanted to ruin us. They wanted to ridicule us and shut us down. They would follow us in the street and ask, are you boys? are you lesbians? are you punks? what are you? are you feminists?  we said no to everything, because we knew that as soon as they had a label for us they would box us up and that would be it, we would no longer be interesting to them or anyone else. These were very old fashioned times. Nowadays, the fact that we said no to the feminist question (which was one of many labels thrown at us) is being thrown back in our faces but we said no to everything. We were trying to avoid being labelled by an extremely hostile press. I was extremely feminist and very well read and informed and militant about feminism.

had enough of Slits questions…

Viv Albertine DSC_1496 credit Carolina Ambida
photo : Carolina Ambida
What do you think of the female icons nowadays? Do you think that women are better represented and understood in the rock scene, for instance?

I don’t know anything about rock anymore, I don’t consider it a radical medium so I’m not interested in it.

In To Throw Away, your chapters begin with quotations from female artists, scientists, writers… Did you want to rehabilitate their language, their thoughts?

The quotes from women throughout the book and the way they positioned and their prominent position in the text, is like a sub-strata, an undertow running through the narrative illustrating my influences and acting as a foundation to the work. I collect quotes from books I’ve read or women I’ve spoken to, they give me confidence and strength, and help me feel less alone. I have credited famous authors, my friends, my mother and grandmother, all with the same amount of reverence.  I think it is important to acknowledge where your ideas came from and as so much of female knowledge is passed on aurally I gave them all equal importance. I also credited the authors and women who led me to other books and artists.

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You describe the way women behave everyday, everywhere, not to be assaulted by men. “The dark. Footsteps. Not making eye contact. What shoes am I wearing ? Can I run ? Means of escape, street lighting, any other pedestrians ? Everything registered, recorded, exhausting (…) For 60 years I’ve been shaped by men’s point of view on every aspect of my life, from history, politics, music and art to my mind and my body (…) I see male dominance everywhere (…) I am saturated with their opinions. I can think and see like a straight white man (…) I can think like a rapist for fuck’s sake.’ Do you think that the punk movement has lost the game about women’s rights, that nothing has changed, and that it is an obligation to be a feminist today?

In the 1970s I thought I was part of an ongoing upwards improvement and advancement in women’s equality. Since then I’ve realised that liberation doesn’t just keep on getting better, it happens in cycles and can even go backwards for decades. This realisation shocked me but it comes to everyone who learns about history or lives past 50 years of age.

Being a feminist is the same as being a humanist, belief in fairness and equality for every human being. Therefore every human being should be a feminist, but that’s not how people work. There are men and women out there who believe women are inferior to men and who believe that certain races are inferior to others. It’s a fucked-up world and always will be. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep fighting for it to be a fairer place though.

Do you think the Harvey Weinstein scandal will lead to a lasting improvement on the status of women?

No – see above

Your books are so sincere. And they are often very funny. You don’t hesitate to talk very honestly about sex, shit, hair, bad relationships… Don’t you have any taboo? Is laughing at yourself a way to move forward?

It really helps to heal and to keep your mental health to laugh at the things that most torment you.  I found it difficult to write about the subjects that I am ashamed of, from my rage to my body hair, but the process of writing and talking openly about them have made these fears shrink in size. It’s also enlightening to discover where these embarrassments stemmed from, that they’re not natural but ‘man-made’. When you trace and understand the origins of your fears you stop hating and blaming yourself and become more militant. Although  most personal problems are attributed to people’s parents, parents are shaped by restrictive, oppressive and prescriptive societies.

If you could change something in your life, would you?

I’m too lazy to think about what I could have done differently so, no.

Interview published in New Noise n°45 – September-October 2018

Rob Roberge (english version)

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Photos : Dirk Vandenberg
In Liar, you revisit your life in the light of your memories. The first one of the book concerns your murdered little girl friend, when you were 11. Why did you choose that specific memory to begin your autobiography? Did you choose to “work backwards from the worst moment of your life”, as suggested by the title of one of your previous books? 

Wow…thanks for referencing that story. I hadn’t thought about it, but maybe there was a little of that…though I guess it should sort of be working forwards from the worst moment in this one. But, I think the reason I opened there was not exactly because it was the worst moment (though it was surely up there), but the first moment of feeling that the world was a totally random and uncontrollable place. Prior to that, I knew I was helpless to change certain major things. After that, it seemed to me that everyone was helpless at once. I don’t know if that makes sense. But I guess it was when I realized there wasn’t really a safe space where adults (or anyone) could protect you. And they couldn’t fix it afterwards, either. So…it made a big impression when I was that young.

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How did you select the memories you wrote about in Liar? Some are very significant; others are more trivial. Some are vivid in your mind; others have been recalled to you by some people. How to filter the memories of your whole life?

That was one of the hardest parts. How to balance the really dark parts with some humor (however dark)…I think the biggest thing was that it was a book that could, in a way, never end. That memories kept coming to me…and some of them were great on their own, but would have made the book too long. Some were fine, but were redundant to better memories/scenes that were already there. I tried to give a sense of « whole-ness » or complete-ness without going on forever. It was a tough call with cutting some of the things I liked. Or leaving out a lot (especially funnier, but inconsequential stuff). I tried to let the book tell me where the various paths had been exhausted.

In Liar, as in The Cost of Living, the facts are not exposed in chronological order. Why have you decided this cutting up of your life, through round trips?

You know, I’m working on a novel now, and I told myself before I started « I’m going to tell this one straight and linear…beginning/middle/end. » I had it in my head that I’d been using non-chronological narrative for a while and maybe it was a crutch. But then I realized the only way to tell the new novel is non-chronological. I also remembered that my first two novels are chronological, so I do know how to do it and I should just let the novel dictate what’s right for it.

But the main reason i did it in Liar was that I wanted to have the book mimic the way memories occur to us. And they don’t occur to us chronologically. One thing suggests another. One thing reminds us of another. It’s like Vonnegut’s notion in Slaughterhouse Five where Billy Pilgrim has become « unstuck in time. » I tend to think we all are unstuck in time in our heads. We bounce from moment to moment in thought/reflection.

All that on top of the fact that I’m a digressive storyteller. I’m no longer that interested in creating linear narratives. But, who knows? Maybe I’ll do it next time.

You necessarily must have remembered more moments of your life after the redaction of Liar. When did you know that your book was finished, that you had to stop the writing? Was it because it had an internal coherence?

I remember SO much more. But then came the question of if I had already covered that topic/emotional thread enough in the book already. The harder thing is I’ve thought of a lot of things that should have been in there after the book was published. If anyone cared, I might do a different edition of it…with the stuff I wish I’d put in. Like a director’s cut. But those usually aren’t very good. Plus, who would care? Plus, I have new stuff to do. I don’t know if I answered your question. Hope so.

In most of your novels/short stories, where fictional characters are portrayed, you use first person, whereas in Liar, which is your autobiography, you use second person, in the present tense. It is extraordinarily effective. How did you come to this decision?

First, thanks so much for saying it was effective. That means a lot. Second, I kind of stumbled into it. I’ve always liked second person. Though I think it often works better in stories than in book-length narratives (so that was a challenge). But/and, I had started the memoir in first person, and it simply wasn’t working. Then, for no real reason I could think of, I started doing these autobiographical scotches in second person. I liked it. I didn’t think I had a book. But they came easier. I think using « you » made the text both more intimate (I hope) for the reader, but also gave me more of a distance while I wrote it. When it was a hard or shameful moment (which there are plenty of), it was easier to write « you did this » rather than « I did this. » Plus, I think at its best, it makes the reader more complicit…and either closer/more empathetic or more disturbed (which can be a form of empathy, too) by the intimacy. And I like that. Same with present tense. Seemed more immediate to me. And helped with the pace.

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Your works of fiction focus on young men who look so much like you. They have bipolar disorder, manic episodes, and suicidal tendencies. They struggle with addictions, alcoholism. They have lot of pathetic jobs, deals… Was it the same to write about them and about yourself?

Writing about me (or the persona of « me ») in Liar was a little different. I felt like I get to be more playful in fiction. While characters/protagonists share a lot of qualities with me, I still get to make a lot up and put them in situations I couldn’t allow myself in Liar, where I was trying to tell a true story. Which is somewhat impossible, given the nature of memory and subjectivity. But one of the things I like about writing is that language is already a flawed tool for what we’re trying to do. So, working with the limitations appeals to me in some way. I think it was Pinter who say we never write the thing itself, we write « around the unspeakable. »

All of my writing (except some of my stories) has been very autobiographical and first person. Which is why I decided my new novel I’m working on would have no one who’s based on me. And it would be in multiple third person, rather than first. I think it’s important for any writer to try to do something new with every project. Or at least it’s important for me. I should only speak for me.

« They say you should write a memoir as if everyone you know is dead. A gruesome, but useful thought. But wise advice I think. »

When someone writes about his own life, he also writes about the life of the others, doesn’t he? Did you fear hurting people you love?

Absolutely. There was a deep fear there. About a week before the book came out in America, I emailed my editor in a panic about the book, saying I wish we could pull it, and not put it out. He treated me like the idiot I was and said of course not. But, yes. I panicked and worried about people’s feelings. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to write it, I would have to be faithful to the book. They say you should write a memoir as if everyone you know is dead. A gruesome, but useful thought. But wise advice I think.

Are there memories you have decided not to reveal? And if so, why?

Only one. It just disturbed me too much. Which means I failed, and should have included that. Well, maybe not. I still am not sure. It wasn’t something enormous. Just a moment that resonated with me. So, I guess I don’t really know the answer.

Do you consider that a writer must have lived in order to have something to say? Do you think that a writer only writes well about things he knows well? Are the stories rooted in imagination worthless?

The short answer: Yes. No. No.

The slightly longer one…I think every writer needs life to have kicked them in the ass and broken their heart a few times to know how to write something with urgency and depth and an ego-less empathy. But experience isn’t really directly translated. Lorrie Moore (I think it was her) said that if you were cooking, experience is the ingredient…the food, the spices…but it wasn’t the meal. You need imagination to create the meal. So, maybe that answers your third question, as well.

As for the second question: I think a writer needs to write about things they are obsessed with. Which can be something they think they know. Or something they made up that is emotional true for them. Was it Einstein who said imagination was more important than experience? I always loved that notion. He may be right.They are both important. I think it’s a balance of both.

In a way, as you write about yourself and all your experiences, don’t you “turn your life into a work of art”?

I’m not sure. I think i write about what I don’t know about myself. Not what I do know. So, maybe I turn my questions about life into art…or at least into books.

To write a so sincere testimony and call it Liar is a real paradox. Did you want to give the reader the option to believe or not in your side of the story?

I think I called myself out on all the actual lies in the book. So, while it’s up to the reader to believe the scene/moments/memories, I think everything in there happened the way I remember it. But that doesn’t make it a fact. Nabokov said « memory is a revision. » I didn’t try to lie to the reader. But nothing is exactly as it truly happened by the time it becomes a narrative in my head, either.

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You write: “You lie because you are terrified of being alone. That someone learns the truth. If no one knows who you really are, then who you really are can never be rejected.” In fact, reading your memoir, it is striking to see how many faithful friends, and especially girls, you have. Is it so difficult for you to believe that you are worthy of love, and that you don’t need to lie to be loved?

It was difficult for a great deal of my life. I was, as you mention, surrounded by people who thought I mattered when I didn’t agree. I don’t know. Loving, even liking, yourself is a hard notion for me sometimes, still.

Your work is full of freaks, Eck, the half-boy, Lobster boy… Do you feel yourself different from the ordinary people?

In general, I think everyone must be different and even, under a microscope, not really that ordinary. At least I hope so.

But, to the question, I think I’m different, yes. But not better. That’s a key distinction for me. For years, I thought I was worse. Still do, at times. I think more than feeling different, I’ve always felt like I didn’t fit in. Like « normal » society was going about its days and I wasn’t invited. Which, eventually, was fine, I suppose.

But I have always been drawn to difference (like the half boy, the Lobster Boy, and such)…and also how people (including me) treat such difference. I think there is respectful interest (which I hope I have), and then exploitative distance, where people tend to see the other, in this case, as a zoo animal.

Of course, taken to its radical (and seemingly inevitable) extreme, people’s need to treat people as « the other » is why we see cops gunning down innocent black men in the states. It’s why, unbelievably, the Arian nation is loud and proud here. It’s why a xenophobic, hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic (and so much more) buffoon got voted in on a ticket of regressive Nationalism. People are so afraid of and hateful to people who are (or even look) different. It’s ultimately why we drop bombs and torture.

Sorry. That last bit went off tangent from the question. But any chance I get to bash Trump is hard to avoid.

I see you as a Bukowski who would have a strong sense of guilt, a great care about what people think. Do you like his work and do you feel you have something in common?

Bukowski was a very large influence on me when I was just starting out. I haven’t read much of him in a while, but he was a revelation to me that you could write about disenfranchised people in a clear, empathetic way. That everyone mattered, not just the subjects of most big fiction. That you didn’t need to dress up prose. That you could make yourself the ugliest part of the story. He was a big early influence, yes, I still think Ham on Rye is one of the most underrated great books out there.

You talk about a lot of economical problems: unemployment, pathetic jobs, student debts, difficulties to pay healthcare costs, lack of insurances… Are those problems the dark side of the American /Californian dream?

Well…I think there are people with much much bigger economic problems than we have here (although we have an astounding number of homeless people and, this is horrifying, starving children…and other terrible things going on). Many have it bad/awful here. But the world has so much poverty in numbers and ways we can’t comprehend here.

And jobs…I could be wrong, but while pathetic jobs suck royally, I think other cultures have them. Personally, I have always resented shitty jobs. Because I don’t have that much respect for money…so I resent that the electric company and my landlord and others DO respect money and want me to come up with it.

The other stuff–the student debt is ridiculous. We used to have amazing free public schools–all the way through college. Within my lifetime…this isn’t some ancient thing. But everything’s for profit now. The lack of healthcare for the poor and lower middle class and, in some cases, the elderly…that’s one of the worst, ugliest marks on this country. There’s no excuse…except that we have politicians (and people) who would rather cut taxes on/for billion dollar corporations than save people’s lives. All the people I mentioned and more…people with pre-existing conditions…they’re all expendable because they cost money. But so does the military and they get more money every budget. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that we are, at least in this moment, a cruel nation. And if they don’t change, I think the American dream is now a myth (though it always has been in some ways…just not this bad). We no longer welcome immigrants…we have a caste system…a few people make it out and our leaders and media tend to champion the exceptions as if they’re the norms…but for the most part, people live and die in the income bracket they were born into.

I think Hunter S. Thompson said something like…historians–when they look back on the united states–will call us the greatest failure of a country with some of the greatest promise. I hope not. Maybe there’s time to turn that around. Not this week, though.

A lot of your characters are atheists, and I guess you are too. Is it easy to be an atheist in the USA nowadays?

I think a murderer could be elected to congress before an Atheist in the US. That’s an exaggeration (maybe), but not by much.

That said, it’s not hard to be an atheist in the US. Unless you were some public figure…then you would be kicked to the curb for it. But for relatively obscure writers, it’s not too hard. The hardest part is seeing what hatful and vile behavior is done by alleged good religious people. But that’s not as hard as it is annoying as all hell. That said, there are religious people who I don’t agree with their ultimate faith, but I respect what they do with it. Some feed and clothe the homeless…some help people around the world. You know…I have trouble finding fault with those actions.

And there are probably a ton of asshole atheists. I believe what I believe. I try to respect others beliefs, so long as they don’t hide under the guise of religion to spread hate and violence. Which is happening a lot right now in the states…and other places. Dangerous Nationalism has made a frightening comeback in the world.

But…it’s not that hard (Atheism), I don’t think. Though I stand by the murderer/atheist thing about congress. And it’s hard to see science so devalued in the US…where fossil fuel guzzling climate change deniers are pretty much destroying the earth as fast as they can. Science is a dirty word in the US. And many people use faith to discredit science. Which is ridiculous. And sad. A staggering amount of people are on the wrong side of history at the moment.

When you were very young, in 1972, you were obsessed by the extinction of animals, and terrified of being the last of your species. As you said, “you were obsessed not by death, but by the fear of being alone”. I was astonished by your maturity as a young boy. Do you think that your remarkable lucidity can be an explanation of your future addictions, your desire to be stoned, to escape this harsh reality?

That was probably a big part. That and, later (though I was already an addict), self-medicating for my mental illness. But being high/loaded/drunk was definitely an attempt to escape my head. Being in my head is not always a very good place for me to be. I was running from that.

What would be your definition of happiness?

Wow. Tough one. I guess the moments in life where you’re maybe not even conscious in the moment, but when you are totally in the moment…which can happen when I’m exposed to something of remarkable beauty in the world (which could be something as big as an ocean or a brief witnessed kindness of a stranger to someone else)…or sex…or writing…I think happiness happens when I’m doing and not thinking. And only on reflection (even if it’s a very quick reflection) do I realize that I was surrounded by happiness for a moment. Though sometimes it can happen and you can know it in the moment. I guess it is being totally in moments for me, though. Where I’m not troubled by the  past or worried about the future.

Despair, alcoholism, addictions, physical pain, mental diseases, suicide, and fear of abandonment… how do you explain the pleasure the reader feels reading your books? I cried when I read the words: “listening to the noise the world will make without you”, do you think I am masochistic?

Well, I hope the reader gets some pleasure out of them. But, even more, I hope they can empathize. The books I love the most have made me feel less alone in the world. That’s what I hope my books can do for some people. I can’t control it. But it’s what I hope.

My friend Jerry Stahl, while interviewing me, once brought up the notion that dealing with the pain we can control might be a way of dealing with the pain we can’t control.

So, yes. Maybe you are kind of masochistic-ha. Maybe we all are when we’re reading the kind of books I’m talking about. Suffering binds us, I think.

                     more thanmore than2

One of your girl friends once said to you, talking about REM, that “it’s thanks to the bad parts that you can appreciate how the good ones are great”. Is it why you like to hurt yourself, physically and mentally? To appreciate more the end of the pain?

I don’t think so. Not sure those two notions are related. I think I read her statement as more about the pain of the world. Not what is self inflicted…but, rater, what’s impossible to avoid in this life. Life’s an adult dose. We need those moments of greatness.

Your books can be also so funny, especially the dialogues. They seem so realistic. Do they come from your good power of observation?

I love listening to the way people talk to each other. I grew up in a predominately Italian neighborhood and section of town. Several of the guys were made men and/or connected to the mob in some way. And while a lot of what they did was disgusting, a lot of it was pretty funny…and listening to them talk about it was early training for me in paying attention to the way people talked. Those guys were, often, hilarious. And the names. Lou the Torch (arsonist), Mondo and Fausto (corrupt land guys who owned the town zoning board…plus they owned the major of the closest city)…their brother who I worked for, Clean Tommy…named that because he wasn’t mobbed up and lived an honest life…hence « Clean » Tommy.

And after that, I just became kind of addicted to listening to weak patterns and rhythms. I think that may be where being a musician (or starting to be at that point) really impacts my writing. Dialog is music to me.

Dialog when it’s written in fiction/prose isn’t REALLY real dialog, though. Even « realism » doesn’t contain realistic dialog. It’s more of a distilled/clipped version. Boiled down to the essential.

As for why my stuff is funny (and thank you so much for saying so)?  I value comedy and laughter like few other things in life. I don’t think I have a close friend who isn’t a very funny person. When I was a starting writer, I tended to write bad Hemingway and Carver ripoffs. And then I came to a point where I realized I had no originality to my work. And I decided to make a list of things and people who fascinated me. And humor was on the top of the list. Plus, I just love funny dialog. I don’t think it gets enough respect, at least here. But that’s another story.

You teach creative writing at Palm Desert University, California. In France, people are quite skeptical about this kind of program; they fear a standardization of thoughts and writing styles. Can you explain us the content of your teaching?

I’ve been teaching writing for twenty years, and I have heard (in the states) this notion of a standardization of thoughts and writing styles. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen it. I see a commonality among books published by the major/trade presses here. But I think that’s the result of the publishers being gutless and playing it safe (like Hollywood) and not taking chances on difference and attempts to do something new. But I don’t see writing programs being the source or the blame of that. I see tremendously diverse styles of writing in the classes I’ve taught. I’ve had a lot of students go on to publish…even a few bestsellers (a foreign world to me-ha!)…and they haven’t been anything like each other.

I don’t see why writing can’t be taught. We teach other arts. Painting. Sculpture. Ballet. Is everyone going to be a fantastic writer? No. Some will…but it’s my hope they’ll all be better when they leave than when they came. And better readers, I hope, as well. Readers who help keep literature alive.

That said, I tend to teach writing as both an art and a craft. I think a lot of places teach craft. And that’s good. But unless you challenge people to make art–to be original, to push at the boundaries of what has come before–you’re not really doing a lot. I also teach a lot more theory than some people tend to. I think artists should be aware of modes of criticism. But, maybe I’m weird that way. I read architectural theory to inform my writing. I read art theory. History. I study electronics…it all comes together in some way in the craft. You have to do more than just write.

But, as far as teaching goes…we don’t say that, say, tennis can’t be taught. Everyone…Laver, Graf, Serena…they all took lessons. They were taught. It isn’t just talent that makes a Michael Jordan. There HAS to be a lot of talent, for sure. It surely isn’t MOSTLY coaching/teaching. As a teacher, when I have a tremendously talented student, I think my job is to help them avoid the mistakes I and people I know have made early in their careers. And then get out of the way. Sometimes you can’t take much credit for the great ones. It feels like they were going to make it, anyway. You just show them what potholes to avoid. In both craft and career.

Music plays an important role in your life. You play guitar, sing and write lyrics in The Urinals. Your books are full of musical references: Thunders, Centro-Matic, Ike Reilly, Warren Zenon, Stones, Velvet, Violent femme, Jason and the Scorchers, Tex and the Horseheads, Richard Hell, Dylan… The Cost of Living tells the story of Bud Barrett, a guitarist… You said that music helps you to feel things. Do you think that there is a relation between your love of music and your writing style?

I think there is. More that music influences my writing than the other way around.

My writing borrows a lot from music. I want the prose to sing, if it can. Pace. Rhythm. Dynamics. I’ve said in the past all writing lacks is melody, but I think I was wrong. A beautiful sentence like Fitzgerald’s lines when Nick imagines Gatsby’s death…I’m paraphrasing, but it’s close:… »he must have realized what a grotesque thing a rose was and how raw the sunlight is upon scarcely created grass »…if that doesn’t carry a melody, it carries something very close.

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Four of your books have been translated into French. Have you been translated into other languages and do you know why French people love you?

I’ve only been translated into French. I’m not certain French people do love me, though thank you for saying so. I take the fact that I’m not translated elsewhere as a sign that the rest of the world must hate me. So, where would I be without France (which I loved even before having the pleasure of being published there)?

Do you think that we will have the pleasure to read your new novel in France soon?

I hope so. Though I’m not sure exactly how soon. This has been the hardest one I’ve ever written…I’m trying to do a lot of things I’ve never done before…and it’s taking longer than any of the others have. But once I get it good enough, I’m hoping it will be released. But there may be another year of writing on this one. Hopefully less.

http://robroberge.com

interview partly published in New Noise n°43 – March-April 2018

Peter Farris (English version)

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photo : William Hamilton
In your first novel, Last Call for the Living, Hicklin, one of your main characters was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang. You gave a lot of realistic details about this neo-Nazi organisation (the tattoos, the fact that a member is bound to the group for life, the way they act in prison…), how have you learnt about the AB? Have you met those guys?

I’ve always been fascinated by prison gangs and west coast prison culture, and the tribalism that defines it. While contemplating the novel that became Last Call for the Living, the Aryan Brotherhood loomed large in my mind. As a criminal syndicate, they compose such a small segment of America’s prison population, but are responsible for so much violence. I was drawn to their notoriety and ruthlessness, and devoured as much literature as I could about the AB…but that is as far as I went regarding research.

Are the neo-Nazis still very present in the southern states of the USA?

Neo-nazis and white supremacists are still present in the southeast United States (and elsewhere in America for that matter), but I suspect their numbers are relatively miniscule. They are fringe elements in our society, that unfortunately attract a lot of media attention when they congregate.

Do you think that Trump election (and what he said, for instance, after the events in Charlottesville) has strengthened the voices of the right wing extremists, for example of the KKK?

Trump’s comments after Charlottesville were typically baffling. He’s inarticulate, frequently incoherent but there is no denying white identity/white nationalists compose a section of his base. I don’t think Trump has strengthened their cause, however. He has no ideology and no principles, and he’ll eventually abandon his promises to them as soon as it’s politically expedient.

I feel like the subject of the neo-Nazis is rarely covered in novels or films (I can only remember Oz or American History X). Why did you chose that subject and did you fear their reactions?

I took a warped sense of delight in writing a character such as Hicklin in Last Call for the Living, a psychopathic killer who harbors such despicable beliefs. My hope was that despite his prejudice and penchant for violence, by novel’s end the reader would—despite themselves—summon some sympathy for him. I’ve always loved complicated villains in film and fiction. As far as reactions to the novel, to this day I’ve never heard a word from anyone associated with the prison gang.

You live in, and the action of your novels takes place in, South Georgia. Human trafficking, corruption, prostitution, racism, murders, alligators, mosquitoes, boiled peanuts… the tourist board must not thank you… is it so terrible to live there?

Nah, south Georgia is not so bad as I paint it. Just like anywhere, there are good people and bad people out and about…places that are beautiful and places best avoided.

If I am right, your second novel Ghost in the Fields has not been published in the USA yet, only in France, by Gallmeister. Is it because you talk about upsetting topics (racism, poverty, economic crisis…)? Or is it because the publishing business is not well right now?

Ghost in the Fields does not have an American publisher yet. I don’t think the subject matter or quality of the novel is the reason for it’s orphaned status. Let’s just say as far as the publishing business in my country is concerned, I would rather be lucky than good.

Are you surprised that French people are so interested in your work?

I am surprised and incredibly grateful for the interest from French readers. I have Editions Gallmeister to thank, for believing in and supporting my work. France seems to have a thriving book culture, which sadly is not the case in the United States.

Your French publisher has changed the title of your second novel. They have chosen The Devil Himself. Do you think it is a good title?

I was surprised by the title change but I love it. It works beautifully.

You were the singer of Cable, a metal hardcore band, whose last album was released in 2009. Did you write the lyrics of The Failed Convict, which you used as epigraphs in Last Call for the Living? Is it in Cable that you have developed a taste for writing?

I co-wrote lyrics to The Failed Convict with our bass player Randy Larsen. Indeed, being a vocalist and lyricist in bands for many years laid the foundation for writing poetry, prose and eventually fiction.

Don’t you miss playing music live and working with other people, as writing is a very solitary experience?

I have many, many fond memories from my time writing and performing with Cable and other bands, but I’ve always been a loner and preferred my own company. The solitude required for fiction writing is and always will be a major attractant.

Your art of writing is very special. You make the scenes played again by the different characters, so the reader never knows where the truth is. It is very efficient to build suspense. How do you manage to get into several people’s heads at the same time? Are you schizophrenic?

In the middle of writing a first draft, I probably am a bit schizophrenic! Haha! Fiction writing certainly requires imagination and empathy, and it’s easy to feel a little unmoored if you’ve been living in a character’s head for a few days or weeks.

Several scenes of your two novels are extremely violent. You have a really great talent to imagine tortures and awful ways to die. Is it to reflect the violence of American society? Is it much funnier to create dark “heroes” full of anger and hate than ordinary guys?

I’m not sure the violence in my novels is a reflection of America, which overall is a fairly safe country. But it certainly reflects human nature, as we all possess the potential for violent action given the circumstances. Some people are simply cruel and psychotic, others (criminal sociopaths for example) seem to have an extra gear inside them, and use violence as any predator would. These are the characters that frighten and fascinate me.

Which scenes were the most pleasant to write? The hard ones (the death of Grimes, with his burning head), the funny ones (Willie’s arrest and his 130 kilos of nakedness), or the tender ones (Leonard’s buying tampons to his young protégé)?

I enjoyed writing the scenes between Leonard and Maya the most. Their bond is the heart of the novel.

Mexico, the dangerous pimp of Ghost in the Fields quotes: “An armed society is a polite society” and Leonard says: ‘My law here. My justice.” There are so many guns in your novels, and in your country I guess. To take the law into your own hands is a recurring theme of the western movies. Is it efficient because it is not a cliché but American reality?

Vigilantism isn’t very common in America, but it is true—many estimates suggest there are at least 250-300 million firearms in our country. Where I’m from, gun ownership is fairly common, as firearms are used for a variety of lawful purposes, from hunting to self-defense. As a responsible gun owner, hunter and competition shooter, I value our right to own firearms. Likewise, as a crime fiction writer guns are the tools of the trade so-to-speak. As a fan of westerns and noir, there is simply nothing better than a well-written (or well filmed) gunfight.

Aren’t your books also tributes to pulp fictions, or western movies, or dark novels? I think about Harry Crews‘s Feast of Snake and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter…

Harry Crews is one of my all-time favorite writers, but my tastes in fiction are varied. I certainly appreciate westerns, pulp and noir—and elements from each genre trickle into my writing—but my favorite authors tend to be regional, with a strong sense for place and geography. Ron Rash, Rick Bass, Larry Brown and Flannery O’Connor are a few examples of writers I hold dear.

You describe the importance of religion in the rural communities. Baptist churches are everywhere, (which is strange for French people), with specific cults (the snakes, for instance), and the preachers have a prominent role. Do you think that religion impregnates people’s way of thinking, your way of looking at things?

My views on religion have changed over time, but, yes, people from the southeast United States can be and are very passionate about their faith. Fanaticism and zealotry are dangerous, and every day around the world unspeakable violence is perpetrated in the name of one God or another. But I can’t fault anyone for his or her faith. If it makes you a better person, or helps you through difficult times, who am I to say you’re deluded? I simply ask that you keep your religion to yourself. The world would be a better place if more people adhered to that.

The notion of redemption is very present in your novels, and the sense of guilt. Hicklin and Leonard struggle inside with opposed forces, good and evil, right and wrong. Do you think that everybody has goodness in his heart?

I am—to a fault—cynical and misanthropic…just like Leonard. Fatherhood has softened my perspective some, and I have experienced and benefited from the goodness in people without a doubt. I do believe humans are basically kind at heart, but we are a complicated species and continuously evolving (and not for the better I fear). You can never let your guard down, however, and never forget that there are monsters out there among us.

Can you explain us where the title Last Call for the Living comes from? It sounds very biblical.

It was an unused song title from an old book of lyrics.

In Last Call and in Ghost, a lot of your characters’ difficulties come from the bad relationships they had within their family. Is family Hell?

Haha! Family is hell, isn’t it? I’ve seen estrangement in other families and certainly my own, and estrangement is a major sub-current in both Last Call for the Living and The Devil Himself. Families vary wildly, and are like little ecosystems. I find them all to be dysfunctional (to some degree or another), with depths and complexities that can be mined for great fiction.

Haven’t Hicklin and Leonard a lot in common, actually? They have done dreadful things because they had to; they have built legends bigger than themselves; they shine in the dark; they are changed by love. Aren’t you finally an incurable optimistic?

There are some threads of connectivity between Hicklin and Leonard for sure, as both their lives are disrupted and altered by unexpected friendships. As for being an incurable optimist, I don’t know. Fatherhood has changed me for the better, and I don’t feed off negativity like I once did. But I still find time to wallow in misery and despair…old habits die hard. ☺

Interview published in New Noise n°41 – November-December 2017

John King : second interview (english version)

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Photo : Jaimie MacDonald
In your latest novel, a dystopia, there are no more countries in Europe, but a supranational State, the United State of Europe, run by a technocratic elite. Crats, Bureaus, Controllers are at the service of the centralised power based in Brussels and Berlin. In this New Democracy, “there is no more need for elections.” The Good Europeans are happy to respect the rules. Those who have incorrect ideas, the Commons, are considered as terrorists and must be monitored and repressed. As written on the back cover, « while set in the future, the book is very much about the here and now ». Do you really think that the Europeans live in a travesty of democracy, and that the EU is leading us to dictatorship?

I don’t think it’s that bad yet, but I do believe democracy is being eroded, and at a national level we have seen our elites transferring sovereignty to Brussels. There will always be people and organisations that want to control society, and while we have easy credit and a level of material prosperity, it would be a mistake to think this is no longer true. And so I do feel the EU could become a dictatorship one day, yes, but it would be very different to those we have seen in the past.

We are not talking about screaming leaders and marching soldiers and blitzkrieg invasions. It would be more subtle and longer lasting, achieved through the manipulation of law and a clever use of the internet, the slow brainwashing of populations as history is rewritten and a liberal veneer applied.

They say that the real strength of a totalitarian system is in its bureaucracy rather than its army, and I think of the brilliant novel Alone In Berlin, by Hans Fallada, the fear that the main characters feel, living in a society where nobody dares say what they think, as they are surrounded by informers. I always have George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the ‘power of the proles’ in my mind, where the only hope rests in the people, the potential strength of the masses if only they could unite. In these books, information is controlled and news distorted. What is true and what is not?

The EU’s mission to create a superstate has been played out across the generations, and for decades this slow-motion coup went on in the background, with anyone who questioned it insulted and smeared. But the EU is only a part of something bigger – globalisation, world government, the ever-increasing power of the banks and multinationals, the exploitation of the internet and new technologies.

Isn’t there a kind of provocation in the title you chose The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler, a kind of punk provocation?

The title is an absurdity, reflects the extent to which history has been distorted in the era of New Democracy. Hopefully people will only think about it for a few seconds before they move on from the literal meaning. It is doublespeak. Triplespeak even. Again, it matches the way language is warped in the novel. I didn’t think of it as a provocation, but you are right, and there are a lot of punk connections made in the book. As The Clash sang in White Man In Hammersmith Palais: ‘If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway.’

What unites the Good Europeans is uniformity, conformity, nothing but vacuum. They all think the same, eat the same. Do you consider that the EU denies the specificities, the identities of the different countries?

There has always been that element in society, but it has got bigger, become more accepted and influential. The novel takes things further, to the extent that the thoughts of these Good Europeans are self-censored, an extension of so-called political correctness, which can be stifling and destructive when language and behaviour is misunderstood. I believe in free speech and free thought, but I can see how the first of these at least is being attacked. If you obey the rules you will be rewarded… That is not new.

With regards the EU, what we see today is different to what we will see in a year’s time. It is becoming stronger, dominating national governments, looking to expand its borders, building an empire and thinking about forming an army. Eventually, it has to homogenise the cultures of Europe and create a single identity. It already has a flag, anthem, legislature, paramilitary force. It likes the idea of a giant theme-park full of tourist attractions, but does not want strong local feelings, as these threaten the success of The Project.

In the USE, new rules and regulations are constantly promulgated, rules that can’t be discussed, or understood, by the people. Because « change was good. Change meant progress ». The technos use new words to create new ideas, new absurd concepts. Is it easier to be obeyed when you’re not understood?

Simple feelgood slogans in public, complex and hidden regulations behind the scenes… Undemocratic law-making works its magic.  The idea that all change is good suits business as it means everything has to be replaced, which in turn increases profits. It is perpetual revolution for capitalists and a handy tool to force more debt and through that control on people. The truth is that some change is positive, some change is negative, and we need a balance, but at the moment people are branded backward-looking or nostalgic for trying to preserve or questions things. We see it in ever-changing gadgets and the weight of new regulations, and on a larger scale the disruption of communities through the lust for land and  property and privatisation.

How did you create that Newspeak, that new language, very efficient in your novel? Was it funny to do that?

It developed as I was writing the book, happened naturally, by using words and warping their meaning, adding some childish terms, a sort of ‘baby-talk’ in places, taking to extremes the way language is manipulated today. It was a lot of fun to do. Adding distortion and feedback and turning up the volume like King Tubby! But through words rather than sound.

In your world, History is rewritten. The heroes are the unifiers (Stalin, Hitler, Merkel, Napoleon…) whereas Churchill, for instance, was “a drunkard and a gangster, he was bitterly opposed to unification. He rejected the advances of men such as Controller Adolf and Controller Joe.” Good Europeans are convinced that “there has never been an England. It is a myth.” What’s the importance of History in the building of the future?

There are histories passed down through families and communities, and there are official histories. Both are open to distortion, whether accidental or intentional, and we interpret events according to our own beliefs, but at the state level there are other factors involved. History is essential to building the future, in my opinion. Those with power and wealth and a stake in the EU were furious at Leave voters in the aftermath of the EU referendum here in Britain. They say we are uneducated, stupid, confused, racist, too old. They just can’t accept the people’s view of history, their interpretation of events and sense of identity.

My novel White Trash looked at these same prejudices, the division between those with power and those without. The accusation that older people were somehow selfish and cruel for voting to leave the EU is revealing. The Remain campaign insisted that leaving the EU was somehow backward and inward looking, but this is not how the majority saw things. Voting for independence was all about the future, wanting to be free of an undemocratic system, looking to engage with the wider world. Older people were less afraid than the young, as they have seen the EU evolve, know its history and where it is going.

Where are the young going to hear the most honest history? From their families and communities, or from a government that is in bed with the banks and multinationals, a collection of careerists working for their own rewards? These attempts to turn families against each other, to divide young and old, is a disgrace.

A Free England, far from Heartland, still exists. These locals are seen as under-educated and dangerous by Good Europeans. « The Commons could never be left to their own devices. » Is this a version of the elite versus the people, as in true life?

Yes, and we see this beyond England, and it goes back through time. The kings and queens of the past, who intermarried and controlled Europe, have been replaced by an international set that preaches liberal values but does not live them. They share the same elitist culture of past royals and landowners, have a similar distaste for the masses. It is the same in France I am sure, and across Europe and the rest of the world.

Concerning the kings and queens, what do you think about the monarchy in the UK? doesn’t this system cost you a lot of money?

I think most people here like the queen. It might seem like a contradiction to some of my other views, and really it is, but I am not anti-monarchist and wouldn’t like to see it disbanded. I don’t feel subservient, feel they have no political power, represent a tradition and are a focal point for our country when it is being threatened. I don’t care about the wider monarchy though, the land-owners and all the rest of them.

There is a continuity many people like about the queen, as she has lived through so many stages of our modern history, but I don’t know what will happen when she dies. The royals do cost a lot of money, but the argument is that they pull in more through tourism. People say it would change society if we no longer had a king or queen, that we could have a president like other countries, but who would we get? Tony Blair? Nick Clegg? Sir Bob Geldof? I would much rather have Queen Elizabeth. I am pretty sure Johnny Rotten loves the queen as well.

One of your character in Free England says : « The old Saxon burr of the Southern and Eastern shires had been insulted for centuries by the Latin – and French-loving aristocracy, the Europeanised rulers of the pre-bubblehead days driving a racial prejudice that still persisted. » Do you feel that?

Yes. There is a big division in the English language, as well as the accents. It is the difference between ‘fuck’ and ‘copulate’ – one is a swear word and the other is ‘proper’ English. The monarchy and upper-class was often foreign / international, interbred and even spoke a different language to the masses. The natives were seen as low class and ignorant, as were their customs and culture. That is still true today.

European culture has always been prized as more sophisticated by the rich of this country, and when a new middle-class evolved it followed the pattern as they mimicked the upper-class. This brings us back to the European Union and the division between the feelings of the masses and the drives of the rich and those with power. It is a very old prejudice being replayed. Again, it is stripped bare in The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler.

For you, the only way for people to recover their identity, to fight against the contempt of the elite, to be free, is to leave the EU? Brexit cannot be an end in itself…

It is not the only way, and voting to leave is not an end in itself, but it is a start, and it will certainly help us to preserve our identity. The vote to leave the EU was a major defeat for the elite, but they are still here, and the battle now is to make sure there is a proper Brexit, as they will do everything they can to not honour the decision. This involves leaving the ‘single market’ and customs union, and if we achieve this, the domestic battle will be over the nature of the society we build in the future. That never changes. But staying in the EU would have been a disaster. Half-leaving would be little better.

In your Free villages, people are quite self-sufficient. Values such as solidarity, friendship, respect of the elders are not empty words. Is localism the solution?

The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler is a very green novel. It is all about localism. The decentralisation of power. People working for each other, beyond the profit motive.

As countries do not exist any more in the USE, and rebels fight for the defense of the English nation, is localism a form of patriotism in your novel?

I try to link localism and patriotism in the novel, as they are the same thing in many ways, even if expressed differently. That is maybe a provocation for some people, especially in some left-leaning and green and liberal circles, as any display of patriotism is seen as right-wing and evil. I think it is positive that people are cautious, but that reaction can also become bigoted in its own right. By seeing the common ground it is possible to bring people together. So yes, patriotism is localism and localism could be patriotic.

During the referendum campaign, people who were for leaving the EU have been accused of racism, which made you very angry. You use that formula in your book. The Commons are supposed to be racists, and « Racists questioned the centralisation of power. « Can you explain us?

It is easy to brand someone a racist or a fascist in order to shut down an argument. There are racists who voted to leave the EU, and there are racists who voted to remain I am sure, and the media focus on immigration was a way of distracting from the important issues. The other area of ‘debate’ was trade. That was it. There was hardly any discussion of where the EU is heading. It became a TV spectacle with politicians shouting at each other. For me and most people I know it has always been about the loss of democracy, identity, the corporate nature of the EU. But these ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ smears have been around for decades.

I think those who throw the terms about so loosely are cheapening their meaning.

The EU is not to be blamed for all evils, though. England itself, and all its governments from at least the 80’s, are guilty of contempt towards its people, and proletarians suffered a lot with laws on the NHS, the railways, the education, the trade-unions, the employment contracts… When you write about the USE : « Love flowed when credit was available and profits increased », isn’t it a good definition of capitalistic Britain?

Definitely. The British establishment and the EU establishment can’t be separated. They are the same people. UK governments have looked to change the NHS, privatised the railways and other core industries, attacked the unions, and this is what the EU is doing on a larger scale. The British state took us into EU and kept us there and campaigned to remain during the referendum. It handed over sovereignty and billions of pounds of taxpayers money and betrayed the people. To fight back against the ‘liberalisation’ of the NHS and renationalise the railways, protect wages through the control of labour, well, we have to be outside the EU as it laws and directives oppose such moves, but we also need a change of government. We would benefit from a new sort of politics, and this seems to be happening. You don’t have to agree with them, but the success of the SNP and UKIP, the changes within Labour, are all big shifts. Rejecting the Brussels elite was the same as rejecting the British elite.

Doesn’t the elite of a country include also the intellectuals, the writers, the scientists, the poets…? Do those people have to be rejected like those who have the money and the power?

It’s down to definitions really, and the term is loaded, whether we are seeing the elite as elitist, but these people you mention should really be separate. If anything, you’d hope that writers and poets and philosophers are far removed from the elite, so that they can question things properly, but there is a system that takes people from these and other fields and controls them through financial rewards and honours. Not so much with science, but culture.  Universities are there to channel thought, to control and redirect it, and that in turn links into the elite – in my opinion. If you obey and fall into line, life is a lot easier.

Who decides who is the best in a specific field? There is a canon in literature, for instance, but that is decided by a professional class that imposes rules and even censorship. But we shouldn’t reject anyone for their background or their wealth, but listen to what they say and work out what they believe. You can be born into an elite, but rebel as well. We have to be fair.

Wasn’t the EU a beautiful idea at the beginning? Wasn’t its aim to unite people and stop wars?  If not, why did they build it? And why is the elite still so committed to this idea?

The idea to create a single European state goes back much further than the Second World War, though the need to stop future conflicts between Germany and France was clearly important. But it was the US military and NATO that preserved the peace. Maybe that is why so many European governments have been negative towards the US over the years. The same applies to Britain and Russia. Do someone a favour and they never forgive you…

There were idealists involved in the formation of the EU, I would never deny that, and there are now as well, but as someone who wants England and Britain to not be broken into regions of a European empire I reject it, and I also reject it for its political leanings.

There is another argument that says the EU was created to limit the social gains made after the end of the Second World War, to protect capitalism and the Western elites. Others say it has fascist foundations. The Nazis were white supremacists more than nationalists. They wanted to build a European superstate, but were defeated by patriots who fought to save their cultures as expressed through the nation state. We fought to save Britain, the French Resistance and Free French fought to save France, the Russians fought to save Russia, not communism. They call it the Great Patriotic War. There are a lot of different views on the origins of the EU, and I don’t think it is wrong to consider them.

In your novel, all the Good Europeans share the same culture, a kind of watered-down remixed culture. They listen to soft versions of Abba, The Rubbettes or Jean Rotten. Physical books or records are prohibited. Are technology and digitisation dangerous?

Technology isn’t dangerous, but the way it’s used can be. In the book, digitisation has been enforced as a means of social control. Humans evolved ways of passing information on to future generations, tried to beat death and time and share their experiences and knowledge, but digital versions of books, films, photos, history only exist in cyberspace. By accident or on purpose, history could be lost if there are no physical records.

To publish physical books and defend english literature, is that why you’ve created London Books?

We started London Books because there were these old London novels that we thought deserved to be in print, and while I tried to interest a couple of publishers, there was no reaction, and so we started to put them out ourselves under the London Classics imprint. I edit the London Classics and our aim is to produce a series that reflect a forgotten – and I believe dismissed – literature that is socially aware and for the most part based in and around working-class London. It is another view of the city. And if we had the resources we would like to print more new fiction, give a chance to emerging writers from the wider population, but we are small and our main work is as authors, so progress is very slow. We want to represent another tradition, a strand of English literature that has been marginalised.

In your novel, he internet has moved into InterZone, a large social network where everybody shares the same information at the same time. Isn’t the internet also a big space for freedom and democracy?

The internet is a miracle of science, means everyone can in theory bypass the controllers, but there are negatives, and I think it is only a matter of time before it is taxed and more intrusive surveillance is brought in. It is already happening, as we know, and while there is a casual jeans-and-trainers image applied to the internet, the companies driving it are billion-dollar concerns.

Maybe there are two areas to think about – opinions and news/information. Every opinion imaginable is out there, but with the ‘following’ of twitter and the ‘friends’ of facebook, holding a different view can see person insulted in a way that would never happen in real life. Individuals can be destroyed, and not just by trolls. People are scared to say what they think. So we are more connected, but in a way more restricted.

When it comes to information, how do we know what is true and what is not? Stories can be invented and circulated and accepted as truth, which seems to have happened on a large scale during the American election. I have taken this on in The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler, shown a society where official views are accepted and any sort of argument has been removed through peer pressure and self-preservation.

« Privacy was suspect. » The technology allows a frightening surveillance. Terror is diffuse but real. Everybody is watching you, can be an informer and call the Cool or Hardcore Units. (and If I remember well, London was one of the first major cities to install security cameras). Do you think people are ready to sacrifice their freedom for their security?

There is a lot of appeal in the ability of surveillance cameras to stop crime, or at least track down those responsible, and I think most people tend to accept that as a good thing. But there has to be a limit. Once the cameras are accepted, then the boundary is pushed, and it is much more devious and intrusive inside computers and mobile phones. This has led to a change in mentality. People are filmed and embarrassed and shamed on the internet. They are increasingly tracked and monitored through their devices.

Privacy is no longer respected in the way it used to be, and there are spies and informers everywhere, waiting to tell tales, keen to brand people for the smallest of ‘crimes’. It is becoming more and more petty. Soon there will be nowhere to hide and it could be similar to sleep deprivation maybe. People need privacy and some secrecy and can’t be on guard every second of their lives. They will go mad. Can we still function as individuals if we can never relax? We need privacy.

Don’t people take pleasure in a voluntary servitude? Nobody is forced to go to Starbucks or MacDonald’s instead of pubs, or obliged to buy the latest connected gadget, or watch stupid TV programs.

Most of us like an easy life. The dictators of the future will exploit this, I am sure. Why make people suffer and force them to fight you? The modern leaders will not be ideologues in the same way as Hitler and Stalin. People will want the toys and accept the debt. A remixed version of Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford is going to play the shopping malls of the world. None of the physical hardship, but lots of pressure to keep working.

Rupert is a kind oh a libertarian. As a Good European, he is encouraged to be cruel with animals, to have sex with dates who come from Africa and have been deported, educated for his sexual pleasure. There are no more « moral » values in the USE. Those who have the power can do anything. Are they human anymore?

They are human, because humans can justify anything to excuse their behaviour, and that is what Rupert does when it comes to animals and dates, but he is backed up by those around him, which is essential. He sees himself as very moral, and more so than the commons, and really, people’s morals vary, don’t they, and between different societies as well. Those examples of animal cruelty and the exploitation of women are hidden behind the label ‘freedom of choice’, and again that is the same today.

These careerists of the future are only taking what we have now and moving it on. There are some people here in Britain, and probably elsewhere, who want to show the mechanics of animal slaughter, to be ‘honest’ about where meat comes from, and then to justify the killing as ‘humane’ and ‘necessary’, and above all as free choice – a free choice we make. The same applies to prostitution and pornography. They feel they are great moralists. Look across the world and we can justify the worst crimes. We all feel we are right. Humans are self-deceiving and destructive. The sooner we die out, the better for the planet.

There are lots of references to three major novels in The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Did you want to pay tribute to them or do you think that fiction is more effective than pamphlet as whistle-blower?

Fiction is a great way to get ideas across as it offers a freedom non-fiction does not. It can feel much more personal and immediate. The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler is a tribute to those authors in some ways. The books you mention were inspiring when I first read them, but more than anything I feel they reflect much of what is happening today. The technology is different, as none of them predicted the internet and digitisation, and maybe they are overlooked a little now for that reason, and yet Orwellian doublespeak and Huxley’s genetic engineering and Bradbury’s burning of books and ideas are all totally relevant to 2016.

The Liberal Politics of Adolf Hitler is very near 1984 in the narration (it is written in the past, the characters embody their functions, there is a creation of a Newspeak, of a frightening world) but I see more irony in it. Controller Horace is very cynical (« The best European was boring and conventional and ready to obey every order ») and sometimes very funny. Your book is less desperate, isn’t it?

I did laugh a lot when I was writing this book, often when playing with language, showing the self-deceptions of characters such as Controller Horace and Rupert Ronsberger, but the repackaging of culture meant I could have fun there as well. I hope people get the humour, and yes, it is less desperate than Nineteen Eighty-Four, more of a satire in places.

I suppose this reflects the different eras, as Orwell was writing shortly after the end of the Second World War, and the world he imagined was rooted in that horror, while The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler reflects life in 2016, which is much easier. Those who want to strip back our rights are more likely to be faceless and nameless, their actions marketed as moral advancements, and it is easy to accept the propaganda. Maybe the reality is too terrible to admit. A parallel is there in people’s refusal to confront the meat industry.

As I read the description of the cities in the USE, I felt like I was in the Village of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. Everything is clean, fine but it is impossible to escape, and you don’t know why you’re here. Did you like that television series?

I was very young when it was first shown, but I have seen episodes since and can see the comparisons, the psychology and the madness, like something from Franz Kafka. Maybe I had the likes of Metropolis and The Truman Show in my head more, the Potzdamer Platz domes in Berlin enlarged for the East Side Gates. A Clockwork Orange world just outside. I could add Trump Tower as Pearly Tower after the American election.

How has your book been received in England? You were for Brexit but far from the UKIP ideas in many ways. Didn’t you fear the confusion?

I think Nigel Farage and UKIP are right about the EU, and without them there would have been no referendum, and Britain would have faced disaster, but I don’t agree with their domestic policies or the excessive focus on immigration. I don’t fear confusion. There are people from every party who voted to leave the EU, with big numbers of socialists and anarchists among them. The independence vote crossed over. My feeling is that if the vote was held tomorrow, the victory would be much greater. Few who voted to stay in the EU are pro-EU. Many were swayed by fears of an economic collapse, which has not happened, as well as an unease over the focus on immigration. Despite establishment lies, the country does not feel divided. At least not in terms of numbers.

I know that the future is unwritten but aren’t you afraid of it? Do you have absolute confidence in your people’s wisdom?

I feel less afraid that I would have done if we had voted to stay in the EU. If we had chosen to remain we would have seen more and more power handed to Brussels, more money wasted and, in time, we would have joined the euro. I don’t want to see Britain and England dissolved, and that is what would have happened eventually – and still could, because the establishment here will do everything it can to not honour the vote. I do not trust our political class to deliver on the referendum.

We are very lucky that we are not part of the single currency as it means we can make a relatively easy break. The same cannot be said for those in the eurozone. Most people I have spoken to on the continent seem crushed, as if they have given up. This is my impression talking to friends from France, Greece, Croatia, Germany. When France rebels, as I believe it will, there are going to be huge problems, the sort of things have not had to face. I am more afraid for the likes of France and Greece than I am for Britain.

In your Free England, people read and listen to punk rock, they go to the pub, they sing and drink together, they don’t eat animals and are close to nature, they are non-violent but resist, they have emotions. If Heartland is your hell, is Free England your heaven, your utopia (if we except the fear they live in)? Are you scared that this heaven, the England you love, is dying? Are you melancholic in anticipation?

I don’t think a Utopian society is possible, but I suppose I have created my own version in a way. There is a gentle patriotism that fits with green politics and veganism and strands of Eastern thought combined with a native paganism and the socialism of Christianity. I have punk links in the anarchist bodies Conflict and the Subhumans, while the Wessex Boys and GB45 follow the Oi Oi tradition. I like bands from both these areas, feel they have a great deal in common. Others won’t agree, but maybe my brain is wired up differently.

England isn’t dying. It is evolving. Which is natural. But it is better evolving from the people up, not have its direction shaped by businessmen and bankers, people from the other side of the globe who see London as nothing more than an investment opportunity. The destruction of London and its culture is very sad, but I am an optimist. I was elated as the sun came up over the rooftops and the vote to leave the EU was confirmed. My skin tingled. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

the-liberal

Interview published in New Noise n°37 – january-february 2017