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
Photo : Bruno Picat
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
Your work, especially when it is related to your cycle featuring your alter ego Max Zajack (Hating Olivia, Lounge Lizard, God Bless America, Dirty 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Interview published in New Noise n°37 – january-february 2017
Among all the novels you have written, only two have been translated into French, Born under Punches and The White Room. You said about them that “these two books were the books you became a writer to write”. Why are they so special for you and different from the others?
Okay. There’s a few answers to this one. They’re actually the first books in French under my own name. I’ve also written a series of thrillers under the name Tania Carver, four of which were published by Ixelles Editions a few years ago. I don’t think the books caught on in France, very big in Germany, though. And they’re doing well in the UK. But yes, back to the stuff under my own name. I owe a great deal of thanks to the brilliant Cathi Unsworth for persuading Rivages to publish them.
I had written three crime novels set in Newcastle before them, all with Stephen Larkin in. With Born Under Punches I wanted to do something a bit more ambitious. Use the crime novel as a social novel but not in a worthy or dull way as is so often the case. I wanted to use it to explore the legacy of the miners’ strike in Britain, mostly in the north. It was such a pivotal event in our country’s history and I think that only now are we seeing the long term impact that Thatcher’s decisive, damaging and detrimental policies had. I still can’t think of her as a human being and when I do think of her all my old anger is still there. I wanted to channel that anger into something worthwhile, hence Born Under Punches.
The White Room came about because of two kind of obsessions of mine: T Dan Smith and Mary Bell. Smith was the leader of the Newcastle City Council, an allegedly committed socialist with hugely ambitious redevelopment plans for the North East of England. If his vision had happened as he originally intended it, it would have either been quite spectacular or all pulled down by now as an example of horrendous brutalist architecture. Unfortunately he allowed that vision to be diluted by easy options, mixing with criminals, back handers, illegal deals . . . everything. And the restructuring he did was really horrible. Most of it’s been pulled down now. Mary Bell was a child killer. When she was eleven she killed two small children just a few street from where I lived. I was the same age as the kids she killed. There was also another girl involved but her parents managed to keep her out of it and let Mary take the rap for both of them. Mary had had a tragic life up until that point. Her mother was an S&M prostitute and Mary was being sold to her punters from six months old. It was a huge case at the time and no one knew what to do with her. She was placed in a rehabilitative environment and now lives under an assumed name. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for her. The genesis of the book was realizing that Mary literally killed in the shadow of one of T Dam Smith’s awful towerblocks. To me that was such a strong image that I had to write the novel to fit round it.
A strange thing happened while I was writing The White Room, or rather several strange things. I’m not given to all that hippy shit bollocks about writers being channellers and all that, but there were some strange coincidences. I bumped into an old college friend in a traffic jam in central London and she told me all about how Dan Smith would come to tea when he was in a open prison and working on their community centre. I met a woman in an art gallery who had made a film about the life of Dan Smith. My oldest friend’s partner had just taken part in a political debate against Smith. And strangest of all, I started to have dreams that pieced together secret hidden histories of Newcastle, things I honestly didn’t know about until I subsequently went to research them. Weird.
You mix fiction with reality, and some of your characters, who have existed, had an impact on your own personal life. In The White Room, Dan Smith was an influential politician in Newcastle during the 60’s and your father used to work with him. Born under Punches relates the miners’ strike of 1984 and you said that it was the one event that politicized you, that it was a pivotal moment for both the country and yourself. Do you think that it is because the reader feels your implication that he is so touched by the stories you tell?
I’d like to think so. As a writer all you want to do is transfer your passion for a story over to the reader. Sometimes it doesn’t work and crashes and burns horribly. Stories that are personal to the writer can be so badly, self-indulgently handled that they end up touching no one. Although I wanted to put all the stuff in that was vitally important to me, I had to make sure that the characters were real and not just ciphers, that the plot was truly engaging and that the reader would be entertained while reading it. Angered, appalled, and enthralled, whatever. But I’m not a journalist, I’m a novelist.
To mix fiction and reality, fictitious persona and people who have really existed, stories set against a background of true events, in order to dissect England’s history… Did you want to expose Newcastle as Ellroy exposed LA, in a way?
That was the idea. Like Ellroy in LA and George Pelecanos in Washington DC. Reclaim the past and make it your own. Present the secret histories of our time. Unfortunately, especially in Britain, no one really cares about Newcastle or the north of England. Or at least not in the south, in London. I remember my agent at the time asking me, ‘Why should I care about the miners’ strike?’ and then telling me, ‘Well if you’re going to write about it, make it sexy.’ LA and Washington DC have a degree of exoticism by being in the States that Newcastle doesn’t. Those two books were a hard sell over here. I had/have others planned too but no one wanted them in Britain. I still want to write them though. And I will, when I get a chance.
You were born in 1963. What are your memories of the miners’ strike? Do you remember the young man you were at that time? Did you listen to a lot of music? Read a lot of books?
Absolutely. I think it was around that time that I was finding what I really loved. I’d just discovered Raymond Chandler and it was not so much like having the windows opened but having the side of the house blown off. And listening to LOTS of music. I particularly like the whole Paisley Underground thing that was happening in the States at that time, the Long Ryders, Green on Red, soundtrack for the era. And I remember the miners’ strike vividly. Especially what was happening locally with what was being reported on the TV. A huge disparity. That’s when I first realized that everything could be manipulated, even news, depending on who gained from it. I’ve got that anger now because it’s still going on now. Just look at our Tory government and what they’re trying to cover up. John Whittingdale, the culture and media secretary, has hidden his affair with an S&M prostitute (a lot of which was paid for through taxpayers money) and the media won’t touch it because he’s bought them off with promises of no regulation. David Cameron starves the poor even further while keeping his millions in off shore accounts. Disgusting. And this is all being disseminated through social media, not mainstream media channels, they won’t touch it until a critical mass builds and they can’t ignore it. I think if we’d had social media then Thatcher wouldn’t have been able to get away with what she did during the miners’ strike.
Sorry. Rant over.
In your two novels, you draw a very sad report of 50 years of politics in England. You depict the end of socialist and humanist utopias in the 50’s and the 60’s, through the fall of Dan Smith (whose dream of a new city, an egalitarian society, “a brave new future was destroyed before it had already been built”), who has finally been convicted of corruption. Do you think that betraying their ideals, politicians have killed the hope for a better world? Does power corrupt?
Unfortunately yes. Or rather not corrupt, as such, in most cases I think it just allows the user to become distanced from what they intended it was for in the first place. The majority of politicians are self-serving, only in it for the money and themselves. Or at least that’s how they end up, no matter how they start out, no matter how good their intentions are. The machinations of the machine take over.
Having said all that, I think that in post war Britain there was still a broad consensus between both parties when they were in power. They both seemed to accept that a kind of public-owned socialism worked alongside a responsible capitalism. Margaret Thatcher took her far right Tory fringe to the centre of the part in 1979 and began dismantling our country. Selling us back utilities we already owned, selling off council houses, creating not so much a working class but a Tory underclass.
Socially, politically, economically, how is England today? Does Thatcher’s politics in the 80’s still have an influence on people’s conditions of living, especially the poorest? Has the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour changed something?
Thatcher changed everything. Blair just continued her work under the guise of being left wing. This government we have now, propagating the lie of austerity, is the worst government Britain has had, certainly in my lifetime. Even worse than Thatcher. More corrupt and much more incompetent. People are starving and dying as a direct result of this government’s policies.
What do you think of the organization of the referendum about staying or not in the EU?
I’m firmly pro. Definitely, absolutely. The EU is a flawed organization, no doubt, but it’s worth sticking with. And the only ones in this country who want to leave are all on the far right. Why would I want to be allied with them?
About your characters, most of them have grown up in a very violent social and family background. And they use violence on weaker than they are. Did you want to show the influence of the environment on personalities?
Definitely. I think we’re all products of hereditary and environment. Again, in everything I write I try to remain true to people as they are and present them as they would be if put up against the situations and circumstances of the novels given their hereditary and environment. I can’t stand fiction that presents characters as having been somehow formed in a vacuum. They’re either good or bad and there’s no in-between. Boring. Dull. Lazy. And those type of writers, if they present a bad character, or someone who does villainous deeds, then they’re presented as some kind of folk monster, not created by the good people here, something or someone we can’t imagine being doing horrific things. It’s like they want the villagers to hunt them with flaming pitchforks. I hate that kind of writing. It’s giving glib, lazy answers to where the monsters among us come from. No. Any monsters in our society are created by us. Actions have consequences. Always. Any writer, who doesn’t show that, especially a crime writer presenting what they claim is a true picture of society, doesn’t deserve to be read.
Jack Smeaton and Stephen Larkin stay true to their principles, they keep their ethics. So it is possible. No one is born evil but everyone has to fight to be a good person?
Yeah. Exactly that. John Lennon said, ‘We’re all Christ and we’re all Hitler.’ Absolutely right. It’s a daily struggle to make sure the right person emerges. And yes, it’s often easier to get rid of your principles and take the east route but I’m always fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen. I suspect most people are too.
Some scenes of your books are so terrible. I think of moments when Monica or Mae as little girls are being raped by men, members of their family, sold, beaten, almost killed. You have a very special way of writing these scenes. You don’t describe the violence but its consequences afterwards. You let the reader fill in the blanks. Do you use ellipsis because it was too hard for you to write details about such horrors, or because horror is worse when it is only suggested and not described?
Thank you. When I came to approach those scenes I was torn between being honest to what was actually happening and presenting that as such, and coming across as gratuitous and sensationalist. But then again, i didn’t want to show that these things hadn’t happened, and hadn’t had the most traumatic of effects. I eventually decided on an approach that I saw as shutting a door on the action itself, hearing screams from behind that door and focusing on the reaction of a character on the other side of the door. And of course, as you say, showing the consequences afterwards. People come up to me and tell me about the terrible things I described in The White Room and when I ask them which part, they realize it’s all been in their head and I never described anything. I just suggested it and showed the aftermath. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think about it and go through what happened in those scenes in real detail. I did. And it affected me so much that it took a lot to get over it afterwards, probably more than I’m willing to admit.
Your plots are very complex. The lives of your characters are interlinked. You use a lot of flashbacks. But it is easy for the reader to follow the story. Do you make a very detailed outline before you begin the writing?
Well, I used to. Make a huge plan and pin it up on my corkboard and try to follow it rigidly. But then I found it was taking its own turns, and things I’d imagined at the planning stage weren’t fitting in with how the book was going. And then in Born Under Punches one character kept forcing his way into more and more scenes and I kept wondering why. Eventually I realized he was one of the central characters and the whole of the novel orbited around. After that I became a bit freer with the plotting. Now I usually write about a quarter of the novel, using the characters as a kind of audition. If I like their voices, if they’re interesting, then I keep using them. If they’re not working I drop them. Or kill them, even. I also find that if I plan to rigidly it always takes longer in the working out and then needs re-plotting. I think now I just try to trust the process. At the start of a novel these characters may seem disparate and unconnected, but I know that through the course of the narrative their connections will become apparent.
Music plays an important role in your books. You gave each novel the title of a song. Born under Punches is a song of The Talking Heads and The White Room a song of Cream. How do you choose them? At what moment? Do they influence the stories?
Yeah. As I mention elsewhere here, I do love my music. And I can bore on about it at great length. My first novel, back in 1997, was called ‘Mary’s Prayer’. A song by a band called Danny Wilson from the Eighties. It fitted somehow. Then the follow up, ‘Little Triggers’, was named after an Elvis Costello track. And it went on from there. I thought it would be my thing, song titles as book titles. And that continued until the fourth Joe Donovan novel, ’Speak No Evil’. (Cocteau Twins, in case anyone was wondering. Changed by the publisher from my first choice, ‘Murdered Sons’, a Lydia Lunch track). Then came the Tanias and I fancied a change. But even then, the third Tania Novel is based on a line in a Warren Zevon song. Cage of Bones is the name of the book. ‘Excitable Boy’ is the Zevon song.
I do think they influence the novels, though, the titles. I find it hard to get started on a book, to really envision it, without a title. I know some writers who can just call it ‘Untitled Novel #14’ or whatever, but I can’t do that. I need a title to see where I’m going. And because I thought song titles were my thing, I spent a long time trying to find the right title for the right novel. I had to make sure they were the right ones, that they reflected and enhanced the story, that they became a signifier to a reader, and that they weren’t just something slapped on.
In a passage of Born under Punches, Larkin is upset because he has spent the night listening to his old albums (Lloyd Cole, Costello, The Talking Heads, The Smiths). The music has woken up memories and ghosts and it hurts him. Is music an important part of your life? Do you often listen to old albums you loved? Does it hurt?
Yeah, that part was possibly a bit over-indulgent on my part . . . but yes, I’m always listening to music, old and new. Some that I like discovering (old and new) and some stuff that means a lot to me. Tom Waits is probably my all time hero. Sometimes I’ll listen to old stuff and feel sad that I’m not that age any more and never will be again. Any hurt comes from that. The depth of any hurt depends on how much I’ve been drinking at the time… But I also like moving forward. I hate that attitude people have about not listening to current music, that somehow music was better when they were younger, or that use that hated phrase ‘my era’. No, music wasn’t better when you were younger you were just younger and your self-defiing memories were being formed. And this is still ‘my era’ and always will be until they nail the coffin lid down. I’m listening to music as I write this. Sixties Southern soul. Stax Records. A huge passion of mine. It was either that or the new albums by Richmond Fontaine and M Ward. I’ll play them next. Or the Santiago 77 album. Love that. Or Midlake. Or…
Do you use music as a means to describe your characters’ personalities? As a means to talk about the period?
Absolutely. It’s a great short cut in a narrative to showing character or setting an atmosphere or an era. I know writers come in for a bit of criticism for this, especially male ones, because not everyone knows the music or gets the references. And it can look just like that boy’s thing of making lists. I try never to fall into that trap. It’s not a new thing, though. Cornell Woolrich was doing it in the Thirties.
Your novels are dark but, as you said, “not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise what’s the point? » So, are you an incorrigible optimist? And, above all, as love is part of your “happy endings”, incorrigibly romantic?
God no! Well, not an optimist, certainly. I’d like to think I am, or that some part of me is, otherwise, as I said, what’s the point? But when I look at the news, at the actions of our government, at what corporations are doing to our planet, the Trump circus in the US, I despair. I’m not an optimist but I am a fighter. As for being a romantic… you’d have to ask my girlfriend that!
Can you tell us who is Tania Carver?
My female alter ego… A few years ago now, I was asked by my publisher if I could write a thriller under a female pseudonym. Actually, it was like he bet me I couldn’t do it. I came up with The Surrogate and Tania Carver was born. As I said earlier four of those books were published in France and there are eight in total. It’s been interesting writing as someone else, especially a woman, but I’m ready to be Martyn again now.
You have written a book, unfortunately not yet translated into French, with three others authors, Mark Billingham, David Quantick, Stav Sherez, called Great Lost Albums. The presentation of the book says: « From the 60s to the 00s, with track listings and full histories, Great Lost Albums reveals the recordings that—just perhaps—never existed, but really should have done.” Which band have you chosen to talk to? Why? Was it fun?
Enormous fun. The best fun I’ve ever had writing. The other three are just about the best bunch of people you could want to work with. Great friends, great writers. We didn’t actually talk to any artists, mainly for fear they would try and put an injunction up against us. As it was there was some stuff (usually mine, I have to say) that we couldn’t get past the lawyers. We just holed ourselves up in a hotel in Hastings on the south coast for the weekend and came up with it. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life. It wasn’t a massive hit but it should have been. It’s the funniest book ever written (I reckon).
Interview published in New Noise n°34 – july-august 2016
Your characters are out of the ordinary in contemporary literature. They are Working Class heroes, or Unemployed heroes. Did you want to give the floor to people who aren’t generally listened to? Was it a conscious purpose or was it obvious for you to write about what you knew?
A little of both. As a writer I mostly write the things I feel compelled to write about and often these things are about my own complexities with how I personally relate to society and individuals. I suppose I’m writing to try and understand my place in the world. However, I have always been aware that people ‘like me’ or those from community aren’t represented (or are often represented in a very lazy way) in the arts and I’m grateful for the opportunity to address that.
Do you consider you’re a part of a specific literary movement? Do you feel close to some writers, dead or alive? Scottish ones?
Scotland has a far stronger tradition in working class literature than the rest fo Britain: Janice Galloway, James Kellman, Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Lisa O’Donnell, Jenni Fagan, Val McDermid…the list of successful working class writers is long. I’d like to think I’m contributing to this movement though wouldn’t be so bold as to put myself alongside those names or consider myself ‘belonging’.
You describe the environment and the daily life of your characters with very accurate details. I was struck by the way you depict colors, smells and landscapes, and above all the food they eat, and the beverage they drink. Is what people eat and drink revealing of their social class, like an ice-cream float?
I love that you’ve noticed this! Yes, I believe how we eat, what we eat, our relationship to food shows so much about us as people and where we are in society. Food was a huge deal when I was growing up…quite simply, at the end of the week before our benefits cheque, there often wasn’t enough of it and a ‘treat’ like an ice-cream was a real celebration in our house. How much food reveals about the way we feel about ourselves, those around us and our bank balance continues to be a fascination for me.
In this regard, your French publisher has chosen to change the title of your second novel from Thirst to La couleur de l’eau (the color of the water). What do you think of this title?
This comes from a line in the book ‘as plain and everyday beautiful as tap water’. What is meant by that line is that when we truly love someone we appreciate not just the big beautiful things but every simple, banal detail. When you love someone everything about them, even the unremarkable, becomes imbued with beauty. I think it’s a perfect title for Dave and Alena’s love affair which is both very simple, in that people fall in love every day, and also life changing for them.
Your first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, was based on autobiographical elements. Where does the idea of your second one come from?
I wanted to write about love. When I was writing it I was coming to the end of a passionate but very unsteady ten year relationship and I wanted to explore what ‘love’ was – magic, need, luck, evolutionary programming? At the same time I was living in Hackney, London which is an extraordinarily energetic place and saw a man who seemed both tough and yet incredibly vulnerable and lonely. He became Dave and then I very much wanted to find find him a love and so I ‘made’ Alena. There is less of ‘me’ in my second book there is a lot of my own loves on those pages too.
In spite of all their difficulties, your main characters have a strong life force. They all have grown up with a loving mother. Do you think that everything is possible if a child has received true love from his mother?
I’m not a psychologist but, yes, I believe to feel loved as a child is a huge part of being a healthy adult.
Reading your novels, it is impossible to miss out on the extreme violence against women (physical, sexual, spiritual, the violence of being left). Men are rough, cowards whereas women face the problems. You can always count on them for anything. Your heroes are heroines. As in real life?
Not absolutely in every case – I know and have known many decent, strong, brave men. But in my case, yes the majority of women I have known have been heroes. I grew up in a environment where women held everything together, kept themselves together, because they were mothers and in often terrible circumstances. That had a huge impact on me as a woman.
You have founded the WoMentoring Project, which mission is to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support. Do you think it is more difficult for a woman to succeed in literature?
I set it up in response to a Guardian report which proved that women were being reviewed less than men, therefore they sold less, therefore often their contracts were either not renewed or they were paid less for their next books. There’s a cycle there, underlined by the general false belief that women write ‘unimportant’ books while men write books of ‘substance’. I was seeking to readdress some of that imbalance. The scheme is over 120 women mentoring for free and we have a waiting list for people waiting to offer mentoring – I think this is an issue we’re all too aware of but are at least trying to tackle.
Is female solidarity more important than class solidarity?
I don’t divide things this way. I was lucky to be brought up to be told that I should challenge anything that seems unjust. Solidarity is about standing up and joining your voice with those who don’t have as much ability to speak up.
The way you describe female relationships is very peculiar. Is there nothing to expect from men?
There is of course. More and more what I see in the people in my life (many of whom identify as queer) is that the binary male/female attributions are being rejected. I am a woman, I grew up in with a single mother, I had a ten year relationship with a woman, I have sister and many female friends who’ve shaped my life…I don’t think it’s surprising this is my focus.
Dave is very endearing. He is tender, patient, attentive, shy. He has traits that are usually supposed female qualities. Is he an ideal man?
I think, as a queer, woman I was interesting in slightly subverting those gender roles. Yes, Dave has more ‘feminine’ qualities and Alena could be considered to have some ‘masculine’ traits. Dave is far from ideal, perhaps that’s the point, he is flawed and a little broken…like most of us.
Dave and Alena find a special way to talk : the body language. They discover themselves more through gestures than words. They touch themselves, kiss, sleep together. Nevertheless they don’t have sexual intercourse. Is sex a kind of violence?
They do in fact have sex but it comes very late in the book. I think sex is a beautiful and fundamental part of life if it is trusting, honest, uninhibited. However, Alena has come to regard sex as an act of violence and with Dave she must slowly learn to unpick that thinking and instead learn to see it as an act of love, intimacy and closeness.
Dave’s dream is to travel and you travel a lot. (Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia. You live in Berlin and London). Is it central to your own stability, essential because you’re a writer?
I grew up moving around and that followed me into adulthood. I love stories, new people, new foods, new things to look at and different perspectives. I am constantly excited by all there is to see and learn out there in the world. I’ve been hugely fortunate to find a ‘job’ where that hunger for travel only benefits my work.
You travel alone. Is it a way to put yourself at risk, or because you are very independent, sociable, and because you like human encounters?
It’s because I’m independent, I like encounters with strangers, there is something about being totally alone which allows you to observe and experience something in it’s fullness without the ‘noise’ of someone else beside you. At the same time, I have travelled with people I love and that has a different sort of richness to it too. Ideally I do both when I can but I’d never not travel simply because I had no one to do it with.
You travelled through Russia and Siberia. Was it necessary to understand Alena’s background?
Yes, it had many purposes. I travelled to some of Siberia’s bleakest towns and tried to understand where Alena had come from, why she would take the risks she does. I also took the same train journey as Dave to understand how hard that journey might be for him. Finally, I wanted to take the reader to Siberia and I could only do that by observing tiny details to make it live in their imaginations.
You said that Russians are very hard and never smile. Did you feel lost there, without the words to talk to strangers, like Alena?
It was a very hard trip. I had travelled a lot but, since I am very open and friendly, am used to being embraced by locals when I travel. To encounter not only coldness but often hostility was very hard for me. That said, just like Dave and Alena lost in cities that aren’t their own with no language, when I encountered kindness it meant so much more to me.
Your characters, Dave for instance, are strangers in their own country because they don’t have the words to integrate other social environments. They are intimidated by culture (Dave does not dare to go to the Museum). Is it hard for him to understand that culture and art are for everybody?
I think this is a common problem and it goes back to the idea that if we look for our own lives, stories and societies in art and we cannot find them, we assume that art is not meant for us but ‘other people’. And if we’re not exposed to art it is hard to access the part of us, or the confidence to believe we might create something ourselves. It’s another perpetuating cycle. Much of my work for 2016 is going to involve going to communities who wouldn’t normally consider themselves writers and encouraging them to tell their stories and realise they have real value.
Before you decided to travel a lot, was reading a way to escape, go anywhere?
Absolutely. I never imagined I’d ever get to travel when I was growing up but reading allowed me to access new worlds, to push open my horizons.
As a young female writer, how have you been welcomed in the British literary landscape? Did you fear or feel contempt? Did you have the rules to adapt?
In the beginning had a lot of anxiety that my work might be rejected because I wasn’t like (nearly) ‘everyone else’ but I decided that I would stay absolutely true to my own intention as a writer and be myself, be honest about where I come from. I don’t think I’ve encountered fear or contempt but I do think I’ve subverted some preconceived ideas about the working classes and hope to continue to do so.
Do you consider yourself as a Scottish woman, or as a citizen of the world? Do you often go to Scotland?
I’m going to Scotland tomorrow! About half my work is in Scotland so I’m there a lot. I am actually half American, half Scottish but I consider myself a Londoner…a black sheep who found her island.
What are your projects? Are you working on a third novel? If so, what is it talking about?
I’ve just about finished my third novel. A ‘travelling’ novel what is set in London, France, Budapest, Sarajevo, Palestine, South Korea, Vietnam and South America. It’s about what it means to be a woman in contemporary society and the way women are often silently punished for failing to behave the way we’re expected to.