An Interview with Safety First Records

Once upon a time, the term ‘indie’ described a philosophy rather than a genre and an indie label meant a way of doing things, not an identifiable sound. Xanthi Barker meets the people behind Safety First Records, a passionate attempt to live up to the ideals that come with independence

The night before Guy Fawkes’, as 2011 drew to a close, a hundred or so people gathered in a scaffold-built amphitheatre in a converted warehouse in Hackney Wick for the launch of Safety First Records. The obscure location, the cold, damp night, the autumn leaves scattered across the stage, all added up to something unusual, eery, spiritual. And the musicians did not disappoint. For two hours the audience sat in silence as each act wove another strand into a beautifully composed tapestry of authentic musical expression.

Born of the need for artistic independence and a feeling of being musical misfits, Safety First provides a base for artists who by essence may go undetected by major labels. Three of Safety First form the core members of Klak Tik, a band whose debut album Must We Find a Winner, was released on Safety First in 2010, to critical acclaim. Subsequently, they have released the five-star second album, Copenhagen from singer-songwriter Jack Cheshire, Swedish duo Polly Tones’, second EP The Toast, and the debut album, Ethereo by Danish group, Hanuman 5.

Currently, Safety First are nearing the end of their three-month residency at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. The final concert will be on Sunday 1st April, with Klak Tik and Felix Holt.

Felix Holt
Felix Holt

When and why did you start Safety First Records?

John Beyer: Safety First Records was started in early 2010. Søren, Matt and myself were at the tail end of the process of creating Klak Tik’s debut album and were starting to think a little about how it was going to be released. The album was made as independently as possible. The idea of recording when we wished, with no constraints from others, was an absolute must to create the album that we did. The idea of spending time searching for a label and trashing out a contract seemed so contradictory to the recording process that we decided to do that ourselves as well. Using the knowledge we’d gleaned releasing records for previous musical venues, the core members of Klak Tik took our first step into the unknown world of business and created Safety First Records. All in all, this first release was a success and just about a bearable workload.

Things then progressed very organically. We’d come to realise London isn’t the answer to all a musician’s dreams, and could be, in fact, a slight hindrance. There is no real sense of community and musicians fight for survival rather than help each other out. So we decided to turn Safety First Records into a platform for our friends and kindred musical spirits to release their work and hopefully all benefit from any success.

So is there a common thread running through all the acts you have signed?

Matt Mitchinson: In essence, it is just music that we love to listen to. Through playing in Klak Tik, we get to see and play alongside a lot of great artists, but every now and then you chance upon someone whose music is so good that it takes you to that place you almost stopped believing existed, and satisfies, elevates, or wounds you in a way that only music can. So far that’s how the relationships have started.

On top of that I think all of our artists have something in common stylistically. This probably has a lot to do with personal taste, but it’s also to do with their music not necessarily fitting precisely into any established ‘scene’. It’s part of our aim to build up a community and make sure we don’t just slip through the genre cracks.

You said that the artists take you to a place you almost stopped believing existed – does this imply that you are disillusioned with many successful (or unsuccessful) bands and artists that are around today?

Matt: To be honest, yes, although I’m always loath to say so as it can come across a bit negative, or worse, superior. The musical and commercial structures these days mean that to be a successful artist, or to be supported or promoted to a given level, you have to represent a calculable and pretty much guaranteed return on investment, which is never a good environment for artistic evolution. This idea is mirrored in the film industry with the fourteenth remake of Spiderman 8 or what have you.

The internet and the advent of social media does go a long way to diluting the power of major labels. It’s a much-touted axiom that these days someone’s music can be heard by anyone, anywhere, regardless of their budget or connections, and this is for the most part true. But this has also led to a saturation, and to people’s dependency on computers as a primary method of listening to and discovering music (myself included). Consequently, people’s attention spans have shortened and the internet has become a breeding ground for gimmicks. This is at a cost to music that requires a bit more effort on behalf of the listener, but also offers proportionate rewards.

In relation to being taken to that special place by the Safety First artists, that comes from a love of their music, not a disappointment with everything else. Even with an absolute abundance of great music around, there’s still room for those rare moments when you find something particularly special.

Do you think it is harder for artists who don’t fit into a specific genre?

Matt: It just makes it harder to locate your audience really – for instance with Klak Tik, we’ve found we’re not folk enough for most folk circles, but are definitely not appropriate for a loud indie night. So satisfying gigs, and I guess also publicity, are harder to come by.

Your artists could be described as folk/alternative folk, how do you think they fit into the current folk landscape in London (or not at all…)?

Matt: As above, I think all the artists share our dilemma, hence why we’re trying to establish something ourselves. I’m not sure whether this is an accurate observation, or it’s just my awareness that has increased, but it seems that the number and range of ‘folk’ promoters and gigs has been increasing, especially around East London, where we’re based. But again because the musical spectrum for that term is so large, you’re never quite sure what it entails. Whatever you label it though, I think music of a quieter nature is getting more of a showing these days, which is something we’re very keen to be involved in.

Can you tell me a bit about the artists you’ve signed?

Matt: I think listening to their music will offer the best insight into that. I fear my descriptions wouldn’t do them justice. On a personal level though they’re all, strangely, really lovely people, which I suppose is pretty important for the way things work.

Maybe you can tell me about their Safety First releases instead?

Matt: Our first release after our initial Klak Tik album was Jack Cheshire’s sophomore full-length Copenhagen. It’s an absolutely fantastic album. One of our first experiences of Jack’s music was when he opened for us at our Must We Find A Winner album launch and I can still remember the frustration at being stuck in the green room warming up whilst hearing these gorgeous songs wafting through. We feel honoured that we could be involved in releasing those songs to a wider audience. He has another album in the works right now, a few songs of which we heard at the Safety First label launch night, so we’re very, very excited to hear that in it’s entirety.

We released Polly Tones’ EP The Toast in November last year, as part of the label launch night, but they also have their debut album in the pipeline. Viktor and Mal are currently going through the puzzling and oft-times painful process of mixing the album themselves but we have heard one of the mastered tracks already and it sounds fucking great so I’m sure they, and anyone who gets to hear the result, will be duly rewarded.

A couple of weeks ago was our first release for Hanuman 5. The album is called Ethereo. It keeps getting better and better every time I listen to it, and I liked it a lot the first time! It has been described as ‘weirdfolk’ and ‘freakfolk’, but whatever the style it’s a really, really great record (if more than mildly alarming at times, on first listen, which I won’t spoil by explaining why).

As for Felix, we just can’t wait to release some of his music, and I think we’d collectively give up our firstborns to do so. A Felix Holt record is something my stereo and ears are eagerly anticipating and it looks like we might be getting closer with some of the recordings he’s just made.

We also have the much anticipated (by us and our mums at least) second Klak Tik album coming out, before summer hopefully. So far we’ve got about five of the tracks back from Mark, the poor man in charge of mixing the album, and after a long period of slight disillusionment with the process it is extremely exciting to hear the nearly finished product. We have (almost) settled on an album title now, which, although it took eight months and a few too many counselling sessions to decide on, helps to make everything that bit more concrete.

Jack Cheshire
Jack Cheshire

How does the actuality of starting a record label compare to how you imagined it would be?

Søren Bonke: Starting a record label is the easiest thing in the world – particularly whilst enjoying a nice, cold pint (and not the first one) in the company of good friends. Later it gets a bit more involved. If there is one thing we are constantly having to re-learn, it is that stuff doesn’t tend to get itself done. We meet roughly once a week and set tons of tasks, most of which get completed the next morning, some of which become glowing symbols that procrastination can be shared between people.

Most things involved in running a record label seem fairly straight forward, though I think we benefit hugely from the previous business experience each of us brings to the table.

Previous business experience is unusual amongst musicians, no? What kind of experience do you mean?

Søren: Previous business experience among musicians is probably not as unusual as you would think. It is, however, probably not something most musicians would want to stick on their band bios – ‘Søren Bonke: guitarist, singer, dentist’.

We all still work our day-jobs, and nothing suggests that this will change any time soon. John works for a live music organiser/promoter, which has its benefits for the label, although not as many as you would imagine. John is, disappointingly, very careful not to give us any unfair ‘advantages’. I say – the first rule of nepotism: just don’t mention the word nepotism. His cotton-coated heart will be sucked dry by the industry in time, oh yes.

Matthew works for Cancer Research UK and his righteous heart pounds tirelessly for good causes, even if he sometimes has to nip off early to come play a gig. That makes me feel bad, come to think of it.

I work as a music composer for film, TV and advertising and also as a film title designer and animator. I have good experience with general design, web and video things, which is helpful for the label and the band.

Do you think it is unwise to believe you can make a living as a musician?

Søren: I think it is good to believe you can make a living as a musician. We all need to do it to an extent. Expecting to make a living as a musician would be an altogether more frustrating experience for the majority of people.

Most of us are not going to make a living off music, but we should all aim to do so. I mean, you can’t really put in the kind of effort that it takes to push a band forward without the powerful petrol of faith. A belief that the next album will be the one that changed everything is essential, perhaps even for the song writing in some cases.

Conversely it is important to be happy with the stage you are at, as well. Sometimes the dreams of the US tour bus cruising down the All-American Road, or European summer festivals with mountains of chorizo on the rider, can make the bus journey on a packed 149 down to London Bridge a little sour. Then it is important to remember to focus on the music. The music is what will make you happy, not those other things. It is too hot in Spain anyway. And America – don’t even get me started.

Given the current financial black-hole we are in, do you think it is a difficult time to start up a label?

Søren: Yes. Arguably it is a terrible time to start up a label. Unless, like us, you choose to largely ignore the financial aspects and focus on the musical ones. Then it is a wonderful time. There is endless good music yet to be created and heard by the world. We would like to help.

At the risk of causing a minor earthquake when all the business-heads cringe their feet at the same time, I will say that our ‘philosophy’ of just plunging in head first, seeing what happens, worrying about the finance later, is just right for us.

Spot the artists making business. If I was a mayoral candidate I would campaign against me. Probably quite successfully, as well. I know a story or two.

What difficulties do artists face with record deals from major labels?

John: When an artist releases through a major record label they have to work within a major label framework. These systems are still a little old fashioned and rely, in part, on lots of money being thrown at an artist to help boost their chance of success. Alas, this means sales figures necessary to break even (let alone make money) tend to be massive. With record sales declining by fifty percent in the last ten years, hitting this level of sales can prove difficult. So this leads to a scenario where bands are signed up, then swiftly dropped if they don’t sell enough, or if it looks like they won’t sell enough. This is especially frustrating when we are talking about 10,000 sales being viewed as a failure.

Did you have any dealings with major labels for Klak Tik before the birth of Safety First?

John: We’ve not even had as much as a sniff from a major label with Klak Tik. In a previous band we did have some interest and it was an extremely frustrating situation. A&R love a long courtship and have a wonderful way of not being committal in any form whatsoever. I think it’s because many are actually too afraid to take a risk and sign somebody, so what else can they do with their time? To be fair I’ve never been past that stage of the game, it could get easier… but I doubt it.

How good a measure of artistic merit do you think commercial success actually is?

John: I don’t. Nowadays, commercial success is a good measure of clever marketing and efficient project management. Madonna, for example, keeps having to reinvent herself to stay “current” and maintain success. In my opinion, there is no artistic merit in that, just a lot of focus groups.

If it was a good measure, then the recording industry as it stands would be redundant and we could just enjoy making music without the need for all this nonsense.

How do bigger labels view the artists and releases of smaller labels? Do you think it can be a stepping stone? Or a completely different route?

John: Once upon a time (the ’80s) I’m sure major labels didn’t care about smaller labels. They had mountains of cocaine and Phil Collins to occupy them. However, when some of the record buying public turned their back on them in favour of independent music, the big boys began to take note. Major labels then started buying up or starting smaller labels as subsidiaries to release music through, to give artists that independent smell and hopefully to ‘fool’ some of the disgruntled listeners back into purchasing (such as Sony did with Creation Records). They are now fully aware of the importance of smaller labels and still will swoop in and pinch a little act that starts making medium-sized waves.

How do you think a start-up label compares to more established independent labels in terms of attracting attention and bringing the music to a wider audience?

John: We all begin small and grow up. A label in its infancy cannot usually offer the same level of attention as a more established one. I suppose that the internet has helped level the playing field when it comes to distribution of music. An independent artist can get their music up on all the major online music retailers easily. To an extent though, it’s also just a numbers game. The more money you can afford to spend on a release, the more ground you can cover, simple as that.

How much say do you have in what the artists release?

Søren: None. That’s the idea, anyway. We have ideas. If an artist is signed to us it means that we are into their music and so will always be able to offer an opinion if asked. Generally, we like to think of our label as a music collective, rather than a label label.

Where does the music you release get sold?

Søren: Safety First releases are mainly marketed and targeted to the UK, and are available digitally in most countries, but with myself being Danish, we also have strong ties to Denmark, where Klak Tik are signed to a Danish label. Having just signed our first non-UK act, the Danish group Hanuman 5, these ties should strengthen in the future.

Can I buy Safety First releases in the shops?

Søren: We focus on digital distribution, generally, although it depends on the release. Less and less physical CD’s are flung over the counter these days. The vinyl industry, on the other hand, seems to be thriving.

What are the differences between here and Denmark in terms of musical prospects?

Søren: Being a musician in Denmark is probably not too different in terms of prospects from the UK. And this is saying a lot about Scandinavia, as London has previously been the absolute Mecca for musicians. Copenhagen has an unusually thriving music scene with more Danish bands doing well internationally than ever before. A fact, I believe, that can be largely attributed to a very healthy community of musicians, where it is more common to play in two, three or even four bands, than just the one. This causes the lines of genres to be warped and merged, broken and reconstituted, with incredible results. I am genuinely excited about the Scandinavian music scene and am almost sad to say that most of my favourite bands are not from London, but from Copenhagen.

To return to your question, I think it is also a little easier to live off your music in Scandinavia, as government subsidies, and a perhaps more general appreciation of the craft of music, means you get paid (quite well) for every gig you play, no matter how small. In London the small bands music scene is so backward. It seems the bands are almost expected to pay for playing at a venue. Or at least bring four hundred of their thirstiest friends. This is a problem which is compounded by lazy ‘gig promoters’ who just don’t really seem to care about music (or know anything about it), and will put together foul tasting cocktails of genres on the same nights and charge people way too much money for the pleasure.

How much has the download culture made it harder for musicians to make a living?

John: Making a living as a musician has always been notoriously tough and with downloads having an adverse effect on sales it now looks even tougher. However all is not lost as independent musicians seem to be constantly coming up with new ways to adapt in this changing climate.

The real damage is in the changing way we listen to music. The download culture has generally stopped us from listening to albums as a whole and hence has an effect on our musical attention span. Being given access to music instantaneously takes a lot of the magic away from the discovery of new artists and therefore has led to a perceived devaluation of recorded music.

Klak Tik
Klak Tik

From listening to the Safety First musicians, it seems they are all artists that require focused attention in order to get the most from listening. Is this something you guys look for?

John: I don’t think we look for this intentionally. It must just be to do with our music tastes. I’ve always been into slightly more progressive styles of music, which has definitely shaped the way I listen to songs. However it could also be a complete coincidence.

Do you think people should work harder when listening to music? Do you think they’re able to?

John: People should work harder finding music. I am honestly sick to death with the way we are spoon fed new music. I have a family member who only discovers new music through the X-Factor. It’s shocking. I don’t mean that we should all become music super-geeks, but that people should try to scratch the surface a bit. Dig deeper and take a chance. If you put a little effort into finding something, you’ll probably put some more effort into listening to it.

I don’t really think you can combat people’s snap judgements. Some will give an album a few listens whilst others won’t. I have had classic albums that I abandoned after the first spin and then picked up again a year later and loved (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde for example – seriously).

Another thing I noticed at the launch night was that everyone was sat down, focused, listening. Is it harder for artists who require this kind of attention in a musical landscape that often entails alcohol and shouted conversations?

John: It’s really hard, especially if you are trying to win a new audience over. Sometimes the stars align and everybody shuts up to listen but most of the time it just doesn’t happen. You cannot blame audiences for it. When mob mentality (plus booze) kicks in, all our IQs get dragged down to the level where we feel an overwhelming desire to talk about the newest episode of The Apprentice at the least opportune moments.

With our Safety First Records launch night we tried to gear the whole evening towards considerate listening and it worked really well. Maybe more venues and promoters should aim to achieve this.

Do you think people are getting tired of the alcohol and shouted conversations? Do you think this focused attention is something people are craving?

John: They are craving it but as yet don’t know it. By the time they do, we’ll probably be into shouting again.

Malin from Polly Tones with Jack Cheshire
Malin from Polly Tones with Jack Cheshire

Do you organise Safety First shows?

Matt: Shows, plural, is a bit generous so far, but we put on the inaugural Safety First label night in November last year at The Yard in Hackney Wick. In spite of entailing a lot of hard work and some unexpected obstacles, it turned out to be a magical night. It was a lovely venue and, in front of a full house of 120 or so attentive and appreciative listeners, everyone played amazingly. It felt good to provide an opportunity for the music to be heard in an environment it’s worthy of, and hopefully we’ll be able to do more of the same in the future. Though I have to say, London doesn’t exactly make it easy for such occasions to be regularly viable, at least for a small label like ours.

We’ve also just completed the second of three monthly shows at The Gladstone Arms in Borough. Each night has been Klak Tik joined by one of the other London-based Safety First artists. In February it was Polly Tones, in March, Jack Cheshire. The last will be with Felix Holt on Sunday April 1st.

Rory, who runs the nights there, understands exactly how our music should be given and received in a live setting, so the pub has a truly lovely atmosphere. Everyone has really enjoyed the experience and it’s inspired us to continue this kind of set-up, so hopefully there’ll be more to come.

Do you have any future plans for Safety First?

Søren: No, not really. We are no masters of visualisation. To us the future is an ocean size play-pit of multi-coloured balls that we are splashing through. We don’t really set goals or expect anything particularly, but we get huge enjoyment from seeing our project grow noticeably all the time – slower than Google but faster than a tree.

What is the biggest safety hazard of being a musician and what is your advice to counteract this?

John: Late nights. I like to operate a one-night-on/one-night-off philosophy. Remember an hour’s sleep before midnight is worth two after.

Matt: Empathy and Gout. Adopting a less regal lifestyle can decrease the chances of gout, but with empathy, once the first symptoms are there, it is probably already too late.

safetyfirstrecords.co.uk

Go West: An Interview with Jonathan Evison

Jonathan EvisonRooted in the history and traditions of the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Evison’s West of Here rethinks the epic American novel for the 21st century. Dan Coxon talks to the author about the difficulties of selling his American vision overseas. Portrait by Keith Brofsky

For a New York Times bestselling author, Jonathan Evison has remained remarkably true to his origins. Those who are familiar with the literary scene in the Pacific Northwest – and particularly in Seattle and nearby Bainbridge Island, where Evison has made his home – will undoubtedly have crossed paths with him at some point. At times he seems to be the connective tissue that holds Seattle’s growing literary culture together, and it’s not unusual for Evison to appear unannounced at readings and events around the city. Speak to any author in the region, and you’ll almost certainly find that they know ‘Johnny’.

When it came to selling his novel West of Here overseas, however, Evison has encountered more resistance. The market for a sweeping, widescreen novel about the Pacific Northwest wasn’t immediately apparent, and publishers repeatedly shied away from committing to such a locally-rooted epic. Luckily Evison’s bold, energetic style of storytelling was enough to win them over, and West of Here is now – finally – heading east across the Atlantic.

You’ve just had a pretty incredible year, including the release of West of Here in the US and your first appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists. Has this brought any major changes with it, or is life pretty much the same as before?

This year was a dream come true. Life is the same but even better. In spite of all the touring and other public stuff, I’m dealing with less financial anxiety, so I have more time and energy to focus on my art, which is bliss. Also more time to chase my boy around. And a cabin in the mountains to inspire me.

But really, I’ve been living the dream all along. I’m simply grateful to have the work, the focus, the sense of purpose writing provides me. As odd as it sounds, I get a little wistful when I think of all those late nights in Kinko’s collating stories and packing them in envelopes, and sending them off like little packages of hope – even though they invariably came back as form rejections. I was perfectly happy living off pot pies and cheap beer. I just like being in the game, you know? Not that I wouldn’t be stoked to be so rich that I could finally buy that thirty foot inflatable duck in sunglasses I’ve always wanted. That would look badass in my yard.

You’ve been in a variety of ‘games’ over the years… radio host, comedian, punk rocker. Do you consider these to all be part of the same progression? Or is your career as a novelist totally different to what came before?

I’ll be honest, all the other stuff, besides the punk bands, was just stuff I did because nobody was publishing my novels. All I ever wanted to do was write novels. I wrote my first novel when I was 18 years old. Nobody published me until I was 40. And I’m still considered a “young” writer – ha! I learned a lot writing screenplays, writing comedy, doing talk radio – stuff that has informed and instructed my writing in various ways, but it was all vaguely dissatisfying. If it weren’t for my career in radio, I’d probably have a couple more unpublished novels sitting around.

West of HereWest of Here has been a huge success in the US, but it’s taken a while for it to be accepted overseas. Why do you think this is? Did you always intend to write such a region-specific novel?

I’m perversely proud of the fact that every single non-English speaking European country dismissed West of Here as “too big and too American.” After all, I did set out to write a big American novel. If I would have written a big Chinese novel, I doubt this would be the case. America literature just isn’t considered as relevant as it used to be. Fine. Whatever. Neither is Bordeaux wine or German engineering. Or clogs. That said, the themes in West of Here are universal – personal destiny, national identity, reinvention. I’m a believer that if the themes are universal and the characters live and breathe, nationality shouldn’t get in the way.

Do you think American literature will have to change to remain relevant? Or is this, in fact, the time to turn back to the classics?

America is in the throes of a massive re-invention, and I think it will make for fascinating literature, and if the rest of the world is smart, they’ll pay attention. What is our national identity now that we’re no longer the world’s producer, that we’re no longer at the head of the world order? What is our new idealism? How will we adjust to a new standard of living? Politically, how will we restructure and reform from within? These are huge questions!

Whitman and Emerson used to talk about the “American Experiment” – and guess what? It’s still a big experiment! I think American Literature is poised for a big comeback, and I think the west, particularly the northwest, is going to be the nerve center. Between myself and Patrick DeWitt and Vanessa Veselka and Benjamin Percy and Jess Walter and Jim Lynch and Joshua Mohr and Jenny Shank, etc, etc, I think over the next decade the world is going to see an incredibly rich and dynamic body of work coming from the American west.

Did you purposefully set out to write a big Pacific Northwestern novel with West of Here? What was the original inspiration?

Oh yeah, I totally set out to write a northwest epic. The Olympic peninsula is a fascinating and rugged place. I wanted to write a story about how the land shaped the people, and how the people shaped the land. My goal was to write a sprawling egalitarian novel which would subvert many of our accepted notions about history, and to frustrate readers expectations about what we expect from “historical” fiction. I didn’t want to write historical fiction – I wanted to write a story about history and how it works.

And do you feel that you succeeded in achieving that? I know that I loved the book, and it dealt with many of those ideas – but I also know that the writing process is a complex one, and the end result isn’t always what you originally set out to achieve.

To be honest, I feel like I accomplished more than I set out achieve. That said, not everybody gets it – including some critics. Readers who lose sight of the big picture run the risk of getting lost in this novel. The first 175 pages might feel like one character introduction after another. But if you keep your eye on the big picture, you’ll begin to see all these characters and story lines converge and coalesce. In order to create the effect I was going for, I had to have 70 characters and 40-odd points-of-view – that was the whole point! History is not some linear progression peopled by a few great men, history is the sum of all the small vividly realized moments in each of our lives, and how they interact and relate to one another. History is connections and convergences and shared themes.

Can you talk us through your writing routine? Where do you write, when, how many drafts… and has this changed much as you’ve progressed and changed as a writer?

For me, discipline is the key. I approach writing like an athlete. Some mornings I don’t feel up to the task, but I strap on my trainers nonetheless and do my workout rain or shine. My optimum writing day begins at about 5am., that quiet hour when most of the world is still asleep and I don’t have any distractions. I’ll write until about noon. That time literally seems to pass in an instant. If I can write a page a day I’m feeling pretty good. I like to spend an hour in the evening going over the day’s work with a red pen – making notes in the margins and whatnot. I begin the next day by addressing these notes. That way I’m never stuck, I always have a starting point. I’m an obsessive revisionist. I must write 20 drafts of stuff. It’s never finished. At some point somebody just has to pry the manuscript out of my hands.

I know you’ve been working on edits of your next novel over the past few weeks. Has that process changed for you at all, now that you’re with a bigger publisher? Have you found that your approach towards edits and rewrites has changed over the years?

Nah, my approach is pretty much the same as always. I’ve been lucky to work with amazing editors, and also with an agent who gives great editorial. The key is to work with people who want to help you make the book that you want to write the best book it can be. I’ve heard horror stories from writers whose editors try to make the novel their own. I was fortunate enough with West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving to work with the editor of my choice, Chuck Adams. When I was entertaining offers, I talked with each of the editors at great length about WoH, and Chuck was the guy who best understood my vision for the novel and how to make it better.

All About LuluYou’ve used the places you’ve lived in as the settings for your two novels to date: the Pacific Northwest (West of Here) and California (All About Lulu). How important do you think it is for authors to draw upon the environments that have influenced them? Do you think you’ll stick with these settings, or do you have plans to write further afield?

I’m going to Alaska for research on my next novel, but part of the novel will still be set here in Washington. I’ve got a bunch of notes for a novel that takes place in Montana, too. I also want to write a novel that takes place in Baja. Mostly because I want to live down there for a year and get fat on fish and tequila.

Is it too early to ask about The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving? What was the inspiration for it, and when can we expect to see it on shelves?

Galleys for The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving are going to print any day, and the novel will be released in October 2012 in the States – not sure about UK. It’s a very different book than West of Here. While West of Here represented a huge technical challenge for me, TRFoCG was a huge emotional challenge. It’s a coming-of-middle-age about a male nurse in crisis. Without talking too much about the subject matter, I’ll just say that the novel really took a lot out of me emotionally. In the end, it’s probably my funniest book because it had to be. I’m really excited to get the novel in people’s hands because I feel like it’s one of those novels that’s going to be cathartic for a lot of readers.

Not that you asked, but I’m almost finished with another novel now called The Dreamlife of Huntington Sales, which is another departure in that it actually employs something of a thriller apparatus to frame 16 different limited points of view. I’m really excited about this one, too. I thrive on pushing myself into new and uncomfortable places as a artist.

Do you think it’s necessary for a writer (or any artist) to keep pushing the boundaries of their craft in that way? Or is that more of a personal decision to keep things fresh and interesting?

I don’t think it’s fair to make it some kind of general edict, but as an artist, that’s certainly what I’m after. I want to be developing tools as I go along, surprising myself, frustrating my own intentions, learning, facing new problems all the time. Otherwise I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Sometimes this can make novel-writing an excruciating exercise that leaves me totally exhausted, but I feel like it’s always worth the effort in the end. Especially for the reader. They say hard writing makes for easy reading and I believe that on every level. I do think there is a danger of alienating your readership at times, or at least those readers who have certain expectations for a specific artist. But I can’t worry about that. I just need to keep pushing myself.

I know that you’re constantly reading new writers, and you’re noticeably active in the writing community. Whose books have you particularly enjoyed over the last year?

I read two Ron Rash books this year which really impressed me: Serena, and the forthcoming The Cove. I also read two by Stewart O’Nan this year: Emily Alone, and the forthcoming The Odds. These two guys are among the best American novelists working in my mind. I’m also a big fan of Dan Chaon, along with Adam Ross.

And finally… you’ve interviewed a lot of authors yourself over the years, so what’s your favorite question to ask? And what would be your own answer?

Hmmm. I guess I don’t have a favorite question. I suppose if there was one question I’d ask every writer it would be: Why do you do it? Why do you endure all the heartache and frustration and financial duress and existential discomfort that comprises devoting your life to writing novels (which people may or may not ever read)? And I guess my answer would be that it makes me a bigger person – a more expansive person, a more understanding, thoughtful, empathetic person. A better problem solver, a better husband, a better dad, a better son, and a better friend.

Charles Bukowski: More Notes of a Dirty Old Man

Dr David Stephen Calonne has written and edited a number of books around Beat-era American literature with a particular focus on Charles Bukowski. The recent collection More Notes of a Dirty Old Man will soon be followed by an appraisal for Reaktion’s Critical Lives series. With a James Franco adaptation of Ham on Rye in the works, Dolly Delightly spoke to Calonne about Bukowski’s enduring appeal

Bukowski More NotesDr David Stephen Calonne is an Eastern Michigan University professor specialising in Beat Literature. He has is the author of William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being, The Colossus of Armenia: G.I. Gurdjieff and Henry Miller, and most recently Bebop Buddhist Ecstasy: Saroyan’s Influence on Kerouac and the Beats (with an Introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti). He has lectured in Paris and elsewhere, including the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Berkeley, the European University Institute in Florence, the University of London, Harvard and Oxford. He has taught at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan. During Spring Term 2009 he taught a seminar on William Saroyan at the University of Chicago and he presently teaches at Eastern Michigan University. He has edited three Charles Bukowski books for City Lights, including Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays 1944-1990 (2008), Absence of the Hero: Uncollected Stories and Essays Vol. 2, 1946-1992 (2010) and most recently More Notes of a Dirty Old Man: The Uncollected Columns (2011). He also wrote Introductions to the first two volumes and an afterword for the latter. He has recently completed his own book on Charles Bukowski, which will be published sometime next year. Here he talks about his forthcoming work and the writer who continues to fascinate him.

I know you have just finished a book on Charles Bukowski, could you tell me a little bit about it?

Yes, I just completed writing Charles Bukowski for Reaktion Books based in London. It’s part of their Critical Lives series, which so far has included major cultural figures such as Wittgenstein, Bataille, Picasso, Foucault, Borges, Genet, Neruda, Burroughs, Beckett, Nabokov, et al. I was very happy to do it because I have long believed that Bukowski is, in fact, a great writer and belongs among the Olympians. The book is a literary biography – that is I write about both Bukowski’s life as well as interpret his prolific production of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and letters. Most of the books written about him have concentrated on his colorful life at the expense of treating his work in the manner it deserves. I have tried to set his achievements within the context of the writers he admired – Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gorky, Artaud, Nietzsche, Saroyan, Fante, Hemingway, Celine, Li Po – in order to show his originality in both poetry and prose.

There’s been quite a lot written about him in the last few years. Why do you think there has been such an upsurge of interest?

There has been a steady stream of his posthumous books from Black Sparrow and then Ecco/HarperCollins so I think his name is still very much in the public domain. I’m not sure there has been a particular upsurge; I think rather that there has been a steady show of interest since his death in 1994. But there have been recent events – such as the Levi-Strauss jeans advertisement in which his poetry is recited against the backdrop of various incendiary activities – that perhaps caught the eyes and ears of people in the past year or so.

As you say, there have been several posthumous books. Can we expect any more?

The last Ecco book of poetry, The Continual Condition, came out in 2009. I have edited three books for City Lights… I wrote Introductions to the first two and an afterword for More Notes in which I provide background information concerning Bukowski’s life during the time he was writing the works included in the aforementioned. If More Notes does well, I plan to do another volume of uncollected Notes of Aa Dirty Old Man. Bukowski composed hundreds of these and many are very good indeed, although only 40 were published in the original volume back in 1969. In the new volume I’d like to include some of his art work too – he was a very fine and humorous cartoonist – as well as his poetry.

You said you think Bukowski is a great writer. What to your mind makes him great?

My grandfather Vagharshak Galoostian was an Armenian poet who lived in a small town called Sanger, near Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley. When I was an adolescent and was first discovering great literature and music, I remember talking to him about art and recollect him saying: “David, de gustibus non est disputandum – you cannot argue about taste.” That has stuck with me. I think either you get Bukowski or you don’t. For me he’s great because he speaks to me, the way Saroyan, Salinger, Thoreau, Miller, Dostoyevsky, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane spoke to me in my teens and still continue to. He speaks to the heart, to the yearning for love and meaning, to the suffering of being human, to the existential choices we face every day. I think he does all these things in an utterly fresh and original way. He achieved Ezra Pound’s counsel and “made it new.” He learned from Hemingway – the short, pared-down, fat-free, muscled sentences with subject-verb-object syntax; from Saroyan a loose, easy, casual humorous style (compare Bukowski’s long, funny titles with Saroyan’s); from Fante a lyrical, direct “carving on the page” (as Bukowski put it). Saroyan was Armenian-American, Fante Italian-American and Bukowski as a German-American identified with their sense of immigrant grief and the feeling of being an outsider. Bukowski is included in several cult writers encyclopaedias, and inspires the same kind of loyalty as some of the greats (Tolkien, Salinger, Burroughs, Kerouac) seem to: a fanatic devotion, in some cases. I’ve seen several examples of tattoos of Bukowski’s poetry etched on the bodies of both male and female fans. So, I guess a great writer is someone who speaks to you.

I think you’re right his work does seem “fresh” not only that it also seems effortless. Do you think he revised much?

He did revise. You can see some examples if you visit Bukowski.net. There are many of his manuscripts on display there. His revisionary tendencies have caused some issues concerning the “authenticity” of his work, in particular his published poems. But the posthumous texts have also often been heavily edited by John Martin, sometimes with several lines removed and others added. This is an ongoing controversy, which is just now being aired. I think the poetry was more heavily revised than the prose. I do think his work was largely “effortless”, as you say, but he also often laboured very hard over it. He was very disciplined, very Germanic about sitting down and hitting the “typer” (as he called it). But in interviews he claimed he drank and wrote simultaneously and often spoke of his creativity as a gift bestowed upon him without all the sturm und drang we expect to hear about – the “agony and ecstasy” of being an “artist”. He seemed much more down to earth about it all, and I believe we can trust his testimony on that. Thinking about it in another way, I think he was closer to J.S. Bach than to Beethoven: my sense is that Bach pretty well just wrote it all out in a continual stream of unfathomable genius and Beethoven sort of struggled away at it measure by measure.

He was very talented indeed but like Henry Miller and a few others, achieved success in his 40s, which is quite late. Do you think a certain amount of maturity and life experience helped make him a better/more worldly/ insightful writer?

Bukowski often said that he was fortunate that he did not become known when he was younger. He said that often writers would burn themselves out, and it is true that in American literature, there are “no second acts” in some cases. He probably had in mind figures like Hemingway and Saroyan, whose work Bukowski felt in later life did not match that written at the beginning of their careers. So Bukowski felt glad he wasn’t known earlier. And he did say that he had not known enough yet. As for “maturity”, I do think that Bukowski’s work shows a clear “progression” – that his “late work” shows a philosophical depth which is obviously the result of much hard experience. Although it is also the case that one could argue that Bukowski’s psychological orientation had been set by adolescence: he knew at age 18 what he knew at 68. And I think Henry Miller would have said something similar: that he was an “old soul” in a young body, and that experience in some way simply confirmed what he had felt from the beginning. Perhaps I am not expressing this very clearly, but you raise an interesting question when you use words like “worldly” and “insightful”. Perhaps with essentially “Romantic” writers – their vision is their youth – they constantly go back to childhood to either the primal sense of wonder or the primal wound of their early years and examine and reexamine their experience – a bit as is the method of psychoanalysis – to find what is there. One thinks of Wordsworth and the role of memory of “something far more deeply interfused” which he struggles throughout his life to express.

Speaking of Miller, I know the two were passing acquaintances and the former disapproved of Bukowski’s drinking. Do you happen to know the exact nature of their relationship?

Bukowski had published a story ‘20 Tanks From Kasseldown’ in 1946 in Portfolio, edited by Caresse Crosby. Henry Miller was listed as a co-editor of the magazine at that time. Bukowski was also published by Loujon Press which was the creation of Jon Webb and his wife Gypsy Lou. The Webbs also began to publish Miller in the mid-60s, producing Order and Chaos Chez Hans Reichel and later Insomnia. Bukowski and Miller had crossed literary paths over the years and corresponded during the 60s. Miller praised Bukowski’s poetry but also cautioned him about his drinking. Bukowski was apparently rankled by this because he wrote a humorous poem about it published in Kauri 11, November/December 1965. It was humorously entitled: ‘I Am Afraid That I Will Continue to Drink Myself to Death For These Small Reasons Mentioned Here and for Other Reasons That Neither of Us Has Time for Because I Have Need to Get Drunk Now’ – another of those Saroyan-inspired long titles! He also refers to the incident in several interviews and letters. The poem begins: “I am mad like a dead angel/a great man of artistic renown writes me from Beverly Hills:/’don’t drink yourself to death. especially, don’t drink while/you are writing – it’ll ruin your inspiration’/my nights would be hell and my days unbearable without/drink./the streetwalkers, the whores, the one-night stands the/one-week stands the/one-month stands the/winos the mothers…” (Miller actually lived in Pacific Palisades, not Beverly Hills). Bukowski was often asked about Miller as an influence. He claimed he liked his sexual writing, but was irritated when Miller went off onto metaphysical flights. He mentions this in an essay I included in Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook entitled ‘Henry Miller Lives in Pacific Palisades and I Live on Skid Row, Still Writing About Sex’. Miller had a deep interest in esoteric and Eastern philosophy, reading Madame Blavatsky, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda whereas Bukowski had no interest in these matters, although he deeply appreciated Li Po and himself had, I think, a basically Zen Buddhist aspect to his personality and work. He is very much about paring life down to its barest essentials, rather like Henry David Thoreau. Bukowski and Miller were both German-Americans, Miller suffering with an unloving mother and Bukowski with an abusive father. And they both loved Dostoyevsky, Céline, Saroyan. Miller admired a French writer no one reads anymore but whom my 91-year-old father Pierre Calonne adores: Jean Giono.

Do you personally think the two were actually influenced by one another even if somewhat unwittingly?

I don’t think there was any influence of Bukowski on Miller at all. And stylistically, I don’t think Bukowski took much from Miller. Bukowski wrote a much more muscular, simple, Anglo-Saxon, subject-verb-object, Hemingwayesque prose. But there is a surreal element in Bukowski as in Miller. And you quoted a passage from one of the columns I included in More Notes of A Dirty Old Man in which Bukowski’s character has a sexual encounter with a red-head which he closes as follows: “And then BANG the walls shook, a man on the street stepped on a grease spot, fell and broke his ankle and we slid apart like worms going in different directions, and she stood there and said, “ooooh oooooh oooooh I liked it, I liked it I liked it, you filthy greasy pig…” This reminded me a bit of Miller’s Sexus: the odd shift to the man stepping “on a grease spot” (which obviously echoes the sexual action which is simultaneously occurring”, the seemingly absurd and unrelated fact of broken ankle, and then the typical Millersque “slid apart like worms”.

Another influence on Bukowski was alcohol as he once confessed never having written a poem sober. Do you think that’s true and if so you could perhaps tell me a little bit about how alcohol affected his writing/shaped his work?

One never knows how much is mythic or real in Bukowski, but I would guess that this is true. He would joke about whether he was a drinker who wrote or a writer who drank. Since he did both throughout his life, it is likely the two activities constantly overlapped. He was incredibly prolific. I think his output accounts for over 60 books so far, and there are more to come. We should also take him seriously when he says he wrote to avoid total madness. It was indeed his salvation. There are many books on alcohol and writers, so this probably somewhat of a pedestrian subject by now. There are many abstemious writers: Nabokov and Borges come to mind. I myself don’t believe it has anything to do with making you more or less “creative”. But the inner psychological pressures some humans labor under make alcohol a pleasant way to overcome the anguish for a while, to stretch time, to reach Dionysian ecstasy. The ancient Greeks called it “ex-stasis” meaning to “stand outside the self”. Bukowski frequently invokes the ancient Greek idea of wine as “the blood of the gods”. I think he was really a kind of pagan, elemental, pre-Western-logical-Aristotlian. He was a kind of mystic gnostic, finding meaning in the self, finding many “gods”, not one punishing, furious, judgmental Big Daddy with a Long Beard on a Throne God. I also find similarities in his work – particularly in the mid-60s when he drank but also experimented with various drugs – with the shamanistic idea of shape-shifting spiritual voyaging. Linda Lee Bukowski, his widow, has written about the long talks they had about spiritual matters and I think it is clear that although he “seemed” from the outside to be “just” a “dirty old man” to those who have not read all of his work (i.e. not just the more “sensational” works but also the essays and particularly the wonderful letters which I think are on the same level as those of D.H. Lawrence’s) that he was in fact always deeply trying to answer the fundamental existential questions. Alcohol was another facet of his quest, and I do think that he couldn’t have borne his suffering without it. Long answer. But it’s a difficult question really. Anything can be either an “escape” or an “entrance.”

Charles BukowskiYou mention some of Bukowski’s love affairs, his wife, which brings me to the subject of women. He wrote about them extensively, sometimes in a positive, more often in a negative, light. This has caused many to accuse him of being a misogynist, any truth in that?

If one reads the complete works, it is clear that Bukowski was equally as rough on females, males and on himself. He constantly undercuts the “macho” pose by portraying his male anti-heroes as extremely comic personages. Bukowski’s obsession is with love, actually. His anguish and disappointments are due to the failure of romantic love – he says in an interview something like “love is like the fog which burns away from the sun of reality.” He read the great Roman love poet Catullus very deeply and Catullus’ influence can be seen in Bukowski’s poetry (he composed several homages to Catullus) especially in Love is a Dog From Hell. And he loved Boccaccio’s Decameron and intentionally sought to portray the “battle of the sexes” as a comedy. Remember too that he admired the American writer and artist James Thurber who wrote the funny illustrated book Is Sex Really Necessary? Bukowski admired D.H. Lawrence, but he often poked fun at him for being too serious and too cosmic about sex. In fact in my research I found a comic drawing Bukowski created of D.H. Lawrence urinating and I discovered recently that this is a parody of a water color Lawrence painted in 1928 called Dandelions depicting a naked man in nature relieving himself. So you have to read between the lines with Bukowski. He is always playing with expectations and conventions, and he is no “misogynist.” If anything, he is like his favorite French writer L.F. Céline a (sometimes) misanthrope, but in the Greek sense of “anthropos” being all of humanity, not just the male half. But even here, I think this derives from his disappointment in humanity, his hurt, his anguish. He cares a lot, and if you care, you get hurt.

While on the subject of hurt and romantic love, Bukowski was never more distraught than by the death of Jane Cooney Baker, his one true love. The two had a very destructive relationship, but when she died it almost broke him. Do you think that his attitude towards women was shaped by the overall experience?

Jane obsessed him, quite clearly. In his poem ‘my first affair with that older woman’, he wrote: “she was ten years older/and mortally hurt by the past/and the present;/she treated me badly: desertion, other/men;/she brought me immense/pain/continually.” I think that sums it up. And as you say, upon her death he composed some of his greatest poems. We enter again here psychoanalytic territory, but I suppose that when a person experiences severe trauma in childhood – as Bukowski did – that this then sets the pattern for later life. So that when such a person experiences great loss later, this reactivates the primary loss and the pain is experienced with extreme force. I don’t think it was the relationship with Jane that set the pattern, but the relationship with his parents. His father was insanely abusive and his mother neither defended him from this abuse nor gave him love. In his early poetry and stories of the 40s Bukowski begins to refer repeatedly to the spider who makes the web to catch the fly. This becomes his metaphor for love, for the totentanz of love, which can end in madness or death. He says this also in an interview, that Woman becomes for him Father often: the force that can destroy. But I think this vulnerability is not atypical with many American Romantics such as Hart Crane or Tennessee Williams.

Do you think then that writing about love is when Bukowski truly came into his own? Lawrence Durrell often talked of the writer’s need to make a breakthrough in his writing, to hear the sound of his own voice, is that how Bukowski acquired his?

A very good question. Firstly, we need to distinguish between Bukowski the poet and Bukowski the prose writer. He was always doing both poems and fiction. His early stories are both lyrical and sometimes very dark (like ‘20 Tanks From Kasseldown’ whose anti-hero is Dostoyevskian in his intense, mad, solitariness) and also light, deft and humorous like ‘Aftermath’. He would continue throughout his career to compose in these seemingly opposite styles: tragic and comic. As for “originality” or “finding his own voice”, these things can get complicated. Back to Beethoven: when did he become “Beethoven”? I suppose by the Third Symphony? Before he is still Haydnesque and Mozartian? People will debate these things. I think in some ways it was there from the beginning, but by the mid-60s, Bukowski really started to roar. I think that the Beats (though he often inveighed against them, he had much in common with them) and the hippies and the California counterculture of the 60s allowed him the freedom to become much more open. Censorship restrictions began to lessen, and he was able to combine the lyricism and sensitivity of his original vision with a more hip, direct, vivid style. He also became very fluent in combining these various elements – the absurd comic vision with the deep existential questioning. The fact is that he has several periods, perhaps again like Beethoven: early, middle and late. The early poems in particular are often densely metaphorical, allusive, condensed, intricate. We should remember that Bukowski often read the Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, which were the bastions of the “New Critics” like John Crowe Ranson, Allan Tate, Cleanth Brooks who prized precisely this kind of poetry. Bukowski avidly read the essays in these journals but said he disliked the poetry. Another missing piece of the puzzle of his early influences is Conrad Aiken, who also had an intellectually dense style. So from 1944-1965 you get one Bukowski. Then as I have said, the 60s kick in and you get Bukowski 1966-1986 and then Barfly and the “Late Style” 1987-1994. These are very approximate dates, but in the middle period you get Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969), and then the first novels – Post Office (1970) and Factotum (1974) – a very rich period when he had quit work at the post office and was writing full-time. His life was also very chaotic during this time. He had several mind-wrenching, life-giving, ecstatic love affairs (he was also re-reading Catullus during this period which left its mark) which brought Love is a Dog From Hell (1977) and Women (1978). Then a magnificent book of poetry Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981) and his bildungsroman Ham on Rye (1982). He was consolidating his early achievements during this middle period and also finishing his autobiographical exploration of his whole life, again rather like Henry Miller did in Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn, and the “Rosy Crucifixion” – Sexus, Nexus and Plexus. Then we get Barfly, which I think is the final summation of this period, in the final phase, 1987-1994. Theodor Adorno wrote about Beethoven’s “late style” and here with Bukowski we also get a final summary of his life’s themes. Again, rather like D.H. Lawrence in his late poems, Bukowski becomes more and more preoccupied with building his “ship of death” and the poems become profoundly metaphysical. His cats, listening to classical music on the radio, drinking fine German wine, invoking Li Po, constantly speaking of the quest for authentic selfhood – the late poems are way ahead of anything he had achieved before. And then we also get an experimentation with form – he writes a mystery novel Pulp (1994) and a splendid journal, published posthumously as The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over Ship (1998). So we have a relentless creativity as he tries out new forms as well as returns to earlier themes in a new manner.

Taking his experimentation into account, would you describe Bukowski as a daring writer?

Yes. He absorbed many influences yet succeed in doing what Ezra Pound advised: he “made it new.” I think he is original in fusing the elements of “low-brow” and “high-brow” culture in a vital and often funny way. In creating “Hank Chinaski” – his alter ego who listens to Mahler and Stravinsky, reads Li Po, Pound, Jeffers, and yet can speak in the most colloquial and “vulgar” manner, he brings a new energy and panache to literature. Bukowski learned from Whitman, Hemingway, cumin’s, Saroyan and Fante, and he succeeded in creating his own literary universe in which he fused the existential, dark themes of European literature (Céline, Hamsun, Dostyoevsky) with this particular American tradition of direct speech. He also often added a riotous, absurd humor anchored in the realities of the body. He said he was really a “Puritan”, and therefore went a good distance in the opposite direction to balance his yin and yang. Opinions are divided about Pulp: some really like it and others think it shouldn’t have been published. I myself am fond of it – it demonstrates Bukowski’s interest in crime fiction. He wrote a poem back in 1946 which bears the influence of James M. Cain’s The Postman Only Rings Twice. And he sends up this American tradition. He does this often – refers to a predecessor either in tribute or parody. The opening of Post Office is “It began as a mistake” and the opening of Céline’s Voyage au Bout de La Nuit is “Ça a débuté comme ça”. So Bukowski is always working in a tradition, alluding to other writers, but then going in his own direction. His late poetry is marked by the deepening of his Gnostic vision of life – humans struggling in an indifferent cosmos where each of us must “save ourselves.” This is a recurring theme, as well as a heartbreaking openness in poems such as ‘The Bluebird’. The parallel with late Beethoven I think is apt. If you listen to the Grosse Fuge, the Bagatelles and late sonatas for piano, the Ninth Symphony you can see that Beethoven is pushing way into new territory, pushing the limits of what you can do harmonically, polyphonically, what the instruments are capable of producing. The Germans as usual got this right because in one of the televised interviews they did of Bukowski late in life they played the ‘Scherzo’ from the Ninth Symphony as the opening music. I think that gets it just right.

Bukowski AbsenceYou reference Germany quite frequently, would you say Bukowski is better appreciated in Europe?

He is immensely popular in Germany, and also in Spain, Italy and France. He is translated into Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Finnish, Russian, Swedish and others. His sales during his life were greater in Europe than the US. I’m not sure now what the situation is. He often said that the US was behind Europe in its appreciation of good art. In some ways, one recalls someone like Edgar Allan Poe who was appreciated by Baudelaire and Mallarmé before he was considered of any consequence here. Something similar happened I think with William Faulkner whom Sartre took up with great passion long before Faulkner achieved anything like acceptance in America. And the Russians have always appreciated writers like Steinbeck and Saroyan from a different angle than Americans. In writing my book for Reaktion, I did quite a bit of research into Bukowski and Germany and my feeling is that he fits into a long German literary tradition: he is really a German writer who was actually born in Andernach, Germany and came to Los Angeles at the age of three. He writes in the 60s of his pleasure in being translated into German, as if he is now returning to his original tongue. And when he went to Hamburg in 1978 to give a poetry reading at the Martkhalle, his first words were: “It’s good to be back.” He adored Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven. He has that sehnsucht of the German Romantics: that desire for what lies beyond. And he has the German hard, trenchant, ironic, side to balance the tenderness. I think too he often writes in very simple English, which translates well into other languages, rather like Hemingway. And he is firmly in the American Romantic tradition. As Hart Crane hymned in The Broken Tower: “And so it was I entered the broken world/To trace the visionary company of love, its voice/An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)/But not for long to hold each desperate choice.” And there are lines in Bukowski straight out of Walt Whitman. And he loved Voyage au Bout de la Nuit and Catullus and Rabelais and Li Po, Tu Fu and even has a poem about Vallejo. So one might say he is a figure of Weltliteratur, beyond national classification. He writes with verve, compassion and comedy about our common human plight. You know, like that English chap… what was his name?… (Matthew Arnold) something about how “we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Dolly Delightly reviews More Notes From a Dirty Old Man at her literary blog Book Me…

Mapping the Wilderness: An Interview with Alexi Zentner

Alexi ZentnerSet in the harsh forests of the Canadian wilderness, Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, Touch, draws upon mythology as well as literary convention. Dan Coxon finds that its author is rooted in the power of traditional storytelling. Portrait by Laurie Willick.

For a debut novel, Alexi Zentner’s Touch has already earned a startling number of accolades, including nominations for the Giller Prize and the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Awards. These nominations are less surprising, however, once you open the pages of Touch. Zentner has managed to craft one of the most compelling stories of hardship and loss to hit bookshelves in recent years, coloured with mythical encounters that might have been lifted straight from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The combination of his characters’ bleak, hand-to-mouth existence and the fantastical events that underline their lives is both refreshingly new and shockingly traditional, and has led to the coining of an entire literary subgenre – mythical realism. Canadian by birth, but currently living in Ithaca, NY, Alexi Zentner has handcrafted a new literary landscape for the frosty wildernesses of the North.

How (and why) did you settle on the title Touch? The connection to the narrative isn’t immediately obvious, but it suits it so perfectly!

I usually know the titles of stories or books I’m working on early in the process, and the same was true of Touch. The impetus of the book was an image of a girl trapped under the ice. I was fascinated – terrified might be a better word – by the idea of having somebody you loved so close to you and yet to be unable to help them, unable to even touch them.

When I first started writing Touch, my daughters were younger, and though I think, as a father, the feeling never quite leaves you, I was acutely aware of just how dangerous the world can be, and how little, ultimately, I can do to keep my daughters safe. You never want your kids to get hurt in any way, but it’s almost worse when you can see it happening and can’t quite get there in time to stop it, and that is part of why that image stuck with me.

It’s interesting, because I have been asked about the title, and it was never something that I questioned. I had that title before I was more than a page into it. Almost everybody reacted positively to the title, although my French editors had to change the title to The Woods of Sawgamet, since Touch didn’t really translate well. I do think the title fits well, though. Aside from the image of the girl trapped under the ice – something that almost every reader has said stays with them – there are all of the different ways in which characters touch or fail to touch each other. Obviously, that’s in a physical sense, but also in the way that stories are passed down and changed from generation to generation, and the way that somebody who is long dead and gone can reach out and touch somebody else through myth and memory.

Do you find that your fiction tends to develop from single images in this way? Or do your stories generally spring from a different impetus?

My fiction always comes from an image, a first sentence, or a situation. Very, very quickly, that impetus is surrounded and shaped by characters and settings, but I’ve always had to have that spark to build the fire. I was given an assignment for the Canadian magazine The Walrus to write a story that had to follow five rules selected by another author, and it wasn’t until I had the first sentence that I had the rest of the story. I know that other writers can do it, can pick a theme or a character or even a place and just build a world, but I need something to hang it on to avoid ending up with a character study.

Weather and physical conditions affect a large aspect of what happens in Touch, from the first chapter onwards. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Is this an important theme for you?

I don’t spend as much time outdoors as I’d like. Part of it is a simple laziness. As much as I love hiking and camping and being outside of the city, I’m not particularly good at getting myself to do it in the first place. It’s usually my wife who suggests we take the dog and the kids for a hike, and after I grumble about it, I end up asking why we don’t do it more often.

Before I had kids, I used to spend a lot more time in outdoor pursuits. I actually met my wife because we both rock climbed, and there was a period of years where I lived in the American Midwest, and going rock climbing outside of a gym meant driving anywhere from three to seven hours. After work on a Friday we would pile into a car and drive to Kentucky. We’d set up camp at three in the morning, grab a couple of hours sleep, and then climb until we could barely lift our arms.

Now, we live in a smaller university town, and part of what I like about it is the ability to find spaces where I can still feel like I might be alone. I try to take trips to parts of North America where there is still wilderness – or, at least, the feeling of wilderness – but the city I live in has pockets that feel more untrammelled. As a writer, the appeal of locations that are more removed from big cities is that they strip things down for the characters. In Touch, and in the novel I just finished, The Lobster Kings, which is set in a lobster fishing village on a small island, the decisions that the characters make have real ramifications. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the city, you get cold. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the woods outside of Sawgamet, where Touch is set, you can die.

I would never argue that weather or landscape serve as characters in and of themselves, but they can have profound impacts on the decisions that characters make. In a story, setting is simply the stage upon which the characters play their lives, but if that stage is a place where the natural world has a certain dominion, it can amplify the actions of characters. In Touch, in particular, this is true, and I found that the world I created in Touch was one that I was very drawn to.

I should add that, as a writer, I find the natural world is where I prefer to be. I’m not particularly precious in my writing habits – give me a laptop and a pair of headphones and I can write anywhere – but I envy the idea of having some sort of a cottage on the ocean or in the mountains, somewhere hard pressed against the natural world where I could write for part of the year.

TouchA lot has already been made of your use of myth and fantasy in the book, and you’ve coined the term ‘mythical realism’. Can you explain what mythical realism means to you, and why it attracts you?

On a base level, when people hear magical realism, they think Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I admire Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera is still one of my favourite books – but I’m not trying to ape him, and I use the term mythical realism at least partially to distinguish what I’m trying to do from his work. Magical realism is very strongly associated with the landscapes and traditions of central and South America and Europe, and I think that when you take those frameworks of magical realism and just map them over a different culture and landscape you end up with a work that is a palimpsest; the ghostly images of those other cultures and landscapes show through your own work.

There are plenty of writers who have created interesting work this way, but I’m trying to do something new. I’m trying to wrestle with the questions of myth and storytelling, trying to figure out how it is that in my cultures and landscapes – Canada and the USA – stories become myths, how the vastness of the North American landscape and immigrant experience shapes who we were, who we are, and who we will become. I actually think that in the past year there have been a number of books that are experimenting with mythical realism, fumbling with trying to figure out the role of myth in our cultures. I’d argue that as far as literary trends go, we went through a painful period of detached irony as the main driving force for writers, and that one of the things that I want to do is to try to reclaim the sense of wonder that I think all readers strive for.

Look, what I really want to do is to try to tell good stories, to give readers the chance to lose themselves in a book, to remember what it was like as a kid to hear a story and to believe in something greater than ourselves. Mythical realism is something that should be woven throughout a book, in the same way that myth and story are woven through our lives, not just dropped in like a parlour trick. I don’t want a reader to think, “oh, that’s beautiful.” I want them to feel it. And if that means that, as a writer, I need to risk being overly sentimental, I’d rather risk that than risk nothing at all.

Which books stood out to you as being in this vein? Are there any particular writers you admire right now?

I hesitate to speak for other writers, because I think that not all of them would agree with my assessment of their work as mythical realism, but there is a new generation of writers who are including myth and magic in their work in an unapologetic way that is completely different from the way it has been used in magical realism. As for writers who I admire right now, it’s kind of an endless list. One of the great things about writing a book is that it gives you a chance to meet other writers. Both Peter Mountford (A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism) and Alan Heathcock (Volt) had books come out around the same time as Touch, and I both admire their work and was glad to have brothers-in-arms to talk with as the publication process moved forward.

You’ve recently returned from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and while I know that many American writers rate it highly, I’m sure that readers elsewhere have no idea what it is. Can you explain Bread Loaf for us briefly, and give us some insight into what it’s done for you?

I love Bread Loaf. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a conference for writers that takes place near Middlebury, Vermont. The campus – and outpost of Middlebury College – is within sight of Bread Loaf Mountain, hence the name. The conference is about ten days, and consists of workshops in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as readings, craft lectures, and other activities. The entire conference revolves around the written word. It’s a bucolic setting that’s in a part of the USA that I love, and it’s an incredibly intense period of focus on writing. I think, because the campus is sort of isolated, it’s a heightened experience.

I’ve been twice. The first time was as a work-study scholar. The work part of it is that you work as a waiter during the conference, which is pretty demanding on top of the packed schedule, but you become very close with your fellow waiters, all of whom are picked for their “promise” as writers. This past summer I went as a “fellow,” which meant that I assisted the faculty member in workshop, taught a craft lecture, and gave individual consultations. More than anything, what it’s done for me is help me to become close with other writers, so that no matter where I travel or what festivals I attend, there is usually somebody there that I know. It’s a way of making the writing world smaller and friendlier.

Do you think writers are naturally driven to seek each other out? Or are we more private, solitary creatures?

Reading teaches you how to be alone, and any successful writer is also a reader. I need a certain amount of time to myself, and find that when I have house guests or am staying with somebody else for an extended period that I end up hiding out in my room so that I can read or write.

That being said, I also love hanging out with friends and enjoy doing literary festivals. I like doing panels and am comfortable on stage, and I love teaching and being in front of a room. I need a balance of both. I love meeting other writers, because it’s such an odd profession and it’s nice to have other people who understand what it means to be alone at a desk. Part of it is that other writers are also readers, and I love talking about books and literature. I’m not sure that I necessarily seek out the company of other writers – because I have kids and don’t teach right now, I have a large group of friends who aren’t writers – but I do enjoy the company of fellow writers.

Still, after every trip, every conference, every festival, no matter how much I enjoy it, I’m always happy to get home again. To get to the point where people want you to come and talk about your book you have to spend a lot of time in a room by yourself.

You strike me as someone who loves telling a story. What’s the attraction to storytelling for you? Do you think the nature of storytelling is changing at all as we move further and further into the digital age?

I don’t think the digital age changes storytelling. That’s the short answer. That makes for boring columns, however, and it’s a lot easier to freak out and write about how the internet is changing everything, how storytelling is dying – but we are hardwired to respond to stories. I realise that the way that stories are conveyed is changing, but the human need for stories isn’t. Stories are how we figure out who we are as humans, both individually and in the aggregate. We seek out information so that we can know things, but we seek out stories so that we can feel things.

I love telling stories, but honestly, what I like even more than telling them is being told them. I think that most writers – most storytellers of whatever ilk – follow that path because at some point in their development they came across some sort of a book or a movie or even a piece of music that captured them, that made everything fall away. I’d argue that reading in particular is important. Aside from the idea that stories help us figure out who we are, reading teaches us how to be alone, how to be comfortable with ourselves.

For publishers, there are business model concerns. I can’t even pretend to understand the business model of publishing and making films. Speaking specifically about movies, it’s frustrating to me to see the amount of absolute shit that is produced, the number of films where the budget for fake blood has to be triple whatever they spent on writers. I’m personally quite happy to go see an action movie, but I’d say that about half of what I see could have been made a lot better if I’d been given the script and a weekend to rewrite it. Story comes first. Story comes last. True for books, true for movies. The movies and books that stay with us do so because they tap something inside of us. I don’t care how it’s delivered – though an e-reader, a real book, on a movie screen, on your phone – what matters is that there’s something that captures the reader/audience.

I know you’ve just finished writing The Lobster Kings… is it too early to ask for a preview? Will readers see similar themes to Touch, or is it a departure from your first book?

It’s set off the east coast of North America on an island that is actually contested territory, neither Canadian nor American. It’s told from the point of view of Cordelia Kings, a lobster fisherman (though she’s a woman), who is one of three daughters in a line that can trace itself back to the first white settler on the island, Brumfitt Kings, who was both a fisherman and a painter. There are Shakespearian undertones – which is probably evident from the name Cordelia, though this is certainly not a retelling of King Lear – and mythical realism: the Kings carry both a curse and a blessing through the generations. I think that The Lobster Kings is very different from Touch, and yet it will still feel familiar to readers. So it’s both a departure and similar.

Infinite Jest: An Interview with Richard Herring

For comedy aficionados, Richard Herring needs no introduction. So we’re not going to give him one. Declan Tan asks the questions

Richard HerringWhat is it you strive for in your shows?

Mainly to make people laugh, but along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view. But it’s different for each show.

Is there some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?

Sometimes. Other times not. Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.

What do you think of the whole interview procedure, is it worthwhile to ask someone to discuss his/her work?

It’s good to be questioned about what you do and to think about it yourself. Often interviews and the self-analysis that they entail can help one get to grips with something you’re doing or indeed make you question your own motives.

Would you consider your comedy ‘alternative’?

I don’t think that term really has any meaning in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an 80s term. I am not doing mainstream stuff on the whole, I suppose. But comedy loses some power if it becomes too mainstream anyway. I think my audience will always probably be smallish in comparison to those big TV names, but I would prefer to be creating interesting and original work. Though I am not opposed to doing TV or indeed some more mainstream work – you just have to be careful to get the balance right and I’ve realised from observation and my own experience that “success” can sometimes affect the quality of one’s work in a negative sense. I am lucky in fact to be in the position where I am an acquired taste and I am not the face of BBC prime time or crisps or something as it means I can cover the subjects I want to without being beholden to anyone else.

Does ‘alternative’ comedy have a relationship with truth and honesty?

I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty. But some of it is about lies. There are no rules. For me my honesty about myself allows me to be honest about other subjects. But sometimes I will take a contrary or dishonest approach to a subject in order to explore it thoroughly. There is a freedom in honesty though and it is good to express oneself.

You’re mentioned that you’re a fan of Bukowski. What is it about his work that you enjoy?

I like the fact that he’s not bothered about revealing himself to be an unpleasant or unscrupulous person. There is an honesty there that is endearing. We’re all fuck ups and it’s refreshing to read people who admit it with a sense of perspective. But he’s also a brilliant writer with an interesting life that has some parallels with mine, but is mainly entirely different. It’s good to see the world from another point of view.

Of course I am not saying that you have but what do you think of some literary figures’ move further to the right, in terms of politics, as they got older (i.e. Hamsun, Céline and Pound)? Does the same thing happen to comedians?

The same happens with a sizeable proportion of the population of all backgrounds. Realism and idealism are things that one has to attempt to keep balanced in life and I am not surprised that people become more cynical and selfish as they grow older. But there’s no need for it to happen and in fact, probably amongst comedians most of the older ones have stuck to their guns or get more left wing if anything. Personally i think it’s good to keep an open mind throughout your life and there is no shame in changing your mind as long as you do it for the right reasons. I have always been fairly central left and don’t see myself changing too much. But it’s easier to be left wing when you’re poor and young then when you’re rich and old so I can see why people do change their mind. And don’t forget that a good proportion of people are left wing when they are young out of a pose or because they think that’s what they should do or cos they think it might get them somewhere. Time usually flushes these people out. But life has some difficult choices for us all.

More HerringDo you consciously try to evolve through each of your performances?

I keep working in all aspects of my job, writing, performing and the vagaries of delivery. I want to keep improving and fortunately find the craft so interesting that I can do a show 100 times and not get bored with it, because I am discovering new avenues in the routines or new ways of doing them. It’s more perfecting than evolving in that sense. But I also don’t want to turn into a bitter old man saying things were different and better in my day. I love comedy and exploring the way it changes, but I also want to stay relevant. But these things tend to come organically rather than as the result of planning. By staying original and pushing oneself hopefully one can help to shape the way comedy is going, as well as being shaped by the work of others. You have to stay interested, which so far i have.

Are there any comedians, or styles, that you particularly respect? And any that you don’t?

I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.

Who would you say your influences are (comedic, literary, political or otherwise)? Or does the idea of listing them seem arbitrary and tedious?

I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.

What do you think of the brand of comedy that usually fills stadiums and sells millions of DVDs?

I am impressed by any comedian who does their job competently, even if it’s not my sense of humour. It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you. It’s not my cup of tea generally speaking, but it’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms

Are you at your happiest when on stage, or when writing your material, or neither?

I prefer performing because it’s more of an immediate thrill and just writing can be lonely and hard to cope with, whilst there is nothing that compares with making a crowd of people laugh. But after working very hard and going through pain and tears to write, it is also very satisfying to get something finished that you are proud of. I am lucky to be able to do both. If I had to do just one I think I would be unhappy

Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless? Any moments of despair? If so, What has kept you going?

All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now. You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately. It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?

Has there ever been a moment when you’re felt contempt for your audience? How about hecklers?

Again these moments come along every now and again and sometimes an audience or a member of it deserves contempt. The danger is that you start to hate all audiences and forget that you are there to entertain them, they’re not there to pander to your ego. If a crowd is dull or misses the nuances you sometimes feel like slacking off and not giving them the best show, but there’s a chance that the dullness is something to do with you, or they’re just quiet and don’t show their enjoyment as much, so a big part of the job I think is to have the grace and ability to keep performing as if it’s the best gig ever. You can’t let your head drop – though sometimes it gets hard. Hecklers are generally just a pain in the arse. They’re easier to deal with than people realise and it’s an annoyance usually if they throw you off your stride. But again you have to embrace the changes and the unpredictability of live performance and try to make a positive out of it. If you have too much contempt for your audience or comedy in general then (unless you harness it and make it the act, which is hard, but possible) you’re heading in a bad direction. No one is forcing a comedian to be a comedian. If you hate it all of the time then you can stop.

Do you think a comedian or an artist has any other purpose than expression/creation?

It’s fine to be just entertaining and to give people something to laugh about. Life can be bleak for us all and if a comedian telling a cock joke makes someone forget their problems for half an hour or banish the blues then that is something to be happy about. There’s a danger that comedy can become all about subversion or expression and I think you have to keep the funny in there. I am lucky to be able to use my work to create and express myself, but there is nothing wrong in making people laugh until their sides hurt.

What do you think of the current state of comedy?

I think it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. Lots of good stuff, plenty of bad stuff. Lots of the good stuff doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but some does. The stand up circuit is much more inventive and interesting than when I started out. TV is producing similar amounts of great and terrible stuff, but now with the internet there are a lot more outlets for people to do interesting stuff. The people at the high end doing stadium tours and making loads of money might seem a bit mercenary and weird, but there were always these types of comedian and if anything there is more opportunity for invention and self-expression.

Funny Peculiar: An Interview with Dave Stordy

In the first of a double bill, Declan Tan interviews struggling comic Dave Stordy about Bobby Davro, Sedgways and the bleaker side of stand-up

Dave Stordy is a comedian. So is Richard Herring, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Right now, Stordy is writing a bit revolving around our quite casual and uneventful meeting, as I sit there watching him. He suggests I use it, I tell him: yeah. So I use it:

Stordy: ‘So I was talking to this journalist the other day, right… true story, true story.’

As he types onto his laptop, he tells me that he is trying to be funny because, he says, “there is a massive difference between trying to be funny and actually being it”. As we sit on his faded 80s two-piece sofa suite, over hot teas and pink wafers, he says these words with undue stress, force-feeding non-existent wisdom into the cliché. His wild lisp helps him none.

“The last time I was on stage I had to take out my notes from my inside pocket. I just lost myself. For some performers, being on stage is a sort of transcendence from all the bullshit, you know, losing your ‘self’. But I just simply lost my place.” He has these bullets of eyebrows and shifts them up and down as he speaks, like air quotes that have landed on his head, somehow rendering his very face an irony.

“For some comics that might be an exciting innovation, to do that, you know, pull a small piece of paper from your inside pocket and start reading it, like Stewart Lee or someone. But for me it was kind of a nightmare. I forgot what I wanted to say and just panicked. That was five months ago, the night of Halloween. I’ve performed since, but that night has haunted me.”

Stordy: ‘So this journalist calls me up one day and comes round to my flat a few days later for an interview. He thought it might be a good idea… he saw me do a show at Halloween. Nightmare, it was.’

Stordy was right. I had called him up after tracking him down through an ‘open mic’ night based in Leytonstone, looking for a struggling comic that I might be able to speak with, someone who might help me get to grips with the bleaker side of a stand-up comedy career. And Leytonstone was indeed bleak. Especially for Stordy who, five months previous, had died at the hands of 40-odd fancy-dressed revellers, and unforgiving hecklers, in a pumpkin-lit pub just down the High Road.

I went to meet him at his flat in east London. During our chat his lisp occasionally faltered, making me think he was merely in character. It would be a committed stunt for a minor performer, but perhaps telling of his delusion. It was hard to decide on its authenticity. Anyway, we sat down for a talk during which he would occasionally hand me scraps of paper with his latest routine scribbled upon them, bits that his typing fingers were too slow to document.

Stordy: ‘So this journo comes round, drinking my tea, eating my biscuits, “objectively” documenting the gradual obliteration of modern civilised society whilst simultaneously and unwittingly enabling the rampant, murderous spread of Western imperialism and the eventual enslavement of all creatures via its coded language of even parts propaganda, fear and Public Relations misinformation, before begging me for more pink wafers…”

Dave Stordy embarked on his comedy career, he tells me, after having once been caught impersonating his headmaster behind his back, à la Bobby Davro, a man renowned for starting his career in much the same manner. But he detests the comparison; Davro happens to be his unsuspecting arch-nemesis.

Maybe getting detention wasn’t a good enough reason to go into stand-up comedy, I suggest to him, as he momentarily lowers the voice recorder I have introduced to the table. He looks wistfully out of the window, perhaps imagining Monsieur Davro’s uneasy smile reflected back at him.

“He got six beltings for what he done. Maybe that’s what made him take it further. Now, I don’t condone corporal punishment or even like being compared to Davro. In fact I hate him. Yeah, he’s an easy target. That’s why I hate him. Though I admit to feeling a certain affinity to him just because of our shared profession.”

Profession, I ask. So you’re paid for your work? I ask because we’re in an above-ground hole.

“Well, often not,” Dave tells me, turning away from the spectre of Davro, “I wasn’t paid for my last gig because I left the stage when they started throwing their plastic cups. I always told myself, I’d never leave the stage unless they threw glass. Like Malcolm Tracey said. In fact I’m not sure if they qualified but the cups seemed a close enough representation. Anyway, I have been paid before, I don’t like to discuss money. An artist shouldn’t have to. But yeah I make a bit of money off of it.”

And what of your influences, your inspirations?

Stordy: (Pause)

I had angled a similar question at Richard Herring who I’d contacted after that first call to Stordy, as a relief from the grim failings of East End open mic performers. As a success of the business, Herring requires little introduction to connoisseurs of comedy, especially those lucky enough to have caught the Lee and Herring double act during its TV and radio prime in the 90s. Since then both Lee and Herring have fashioned formidable solo careers, producing original and innovative work alternately achieving cult and mainstream success in the 00s.

With a quietly considered response, Herring says: “I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad, and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.”

How about acts you respect, I asked: “I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant-garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.”

Not many achieve that at all, I think, as I return to Stordy and ask him the same question. He is still typing. He thinks about it.

Stordy: (Continue) ‘… not realizing as he picks at them from a cracked plate, that his pink wafers are a sickly metaphor for the present condition of his racket, the news media and journalism at large: pretty, yes, but effectively soiled, saturated by artificial flavours and colourings, unsuitable for those with nut allergies, layered meager layer upon meager layer, both wafer and cream being largely devoid of nutrition and unaware of their vain arrogance… yet he sups them up one by one, dipping them into his warm brew… yum yum yum yum yum…’

Stordy stops typing a moment and answers: “I read Michael McIntyre’s autobiography. I thought it was good. How the ghostwriter got his voice into the words and everything. I learnt a lot from that book. Mostly that ghostwriting for Michael McIntyre could hold a future for me. I’ve studied all of the comedian’s autobiographies, marking the comparisons with them and myself, with a blue pen in the margins. But when I’m not reading I’m usually writing. I’m preparing a website at the moment as well. D’ya wanna see?”

As I contain dubious excitement, I ask if he’s ever thought about quitting. As soon as I ask the question I feel as if I shouldn’t have, as if somehow I had accused him of being shit without having seen all the available evidence. The question interrupts his tapping of the laptop keys. He looks back for Davro.

“Yeah I did once or twice. I quit for about a year in 2005. That was a bad year. I felt like a dog with three legs.”

Ah, I say to myself, Herring may have some sonorous advice for you, Dave. I read him the transcript from my conversation with Herring, specifically the question: Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless?

“All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now.” Stordy certainly fell into this category.

Herring’s words may offer Dave some hope, I think quietly, so I continue to read them: “You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately.”
I look at Dave, who looks at Davro. I go on, feeling like Stordy’s personal coach: “It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?”

“Specks of dust,” Dave repeats. “Cheers for that!”

Stordy: ‘…the wafers jettisoning useless pink specks of dried cream and wafery dust to the floor, castoff, useless and forgotten… I know what you’re thinking: a dick with Chomsky jokes…’’

Effectively disregarding the previous five minutes of conversation and enlightened advice, save for that last sentence, Dave swivels his laptop around and gives me a virtual tour of the website he is designing. It is self-consciously rubbish, filled with hand-drawn scribbles that make no sense and lead the visitor through a pointless labyrinth of links, displaying either doodles of oversized heads on jelly-like bodies, with speech bubbles coming out of them saying things like ‘I am a man’s head’, or crudely sketched pieces of toast saying: ‘Someone buttered my crust.’ An unintentional farce?

“Comedians’ websites are usually intolerable and sycophantic in their attempts to make you chuckle or buy their DVDs or go watch their shows or whatever. I try and take the piss out of that. Like making observations about observational comedy, which actually is a trick ‘cause it’s kinda the same deal but makes you feel superior.”

So, what made you go back to comedy after quitting?

“The inner voice. The one telling me that I had no other prospects. Just the idea of getting back on stage, writing, all of it, filled me with hope all over again. And when I got back up there I didn’t feel like that three-legged dog anymore, if anything I felt like a three-legged man. A maverick, an outsider, though perhaps over-equipped and possibly useless.”

What do you mean by over-equipped?

He has been clicking excitedly through the gallery of doodles and copyright images of Dixy chicken burgers. “I mean that most audiences only want to go to a show to laugh and drink and have a good time, to get away from the horrible shit in their lives. I want them to think. To question their values and their morals. To hold up a mirror to them and our decaying society, to analyse its workings. And then maybe during that, to laugh.” He makes one last click: “Have a look at this one.”

He points to a finely detailed drawing of a lone Griffin fighting a flock of Boobries. The caption reads: “Get your paws off my Boobries.”

It was all a little depressing. I felt like Mickey to Stordy’s Rocky. Trying to get to the core of it, if even just to understand Dave and his near masochistic self-sacrificing to his uninterested audience, I’d asked Herring what it was that he strived for in his shows.

“Mainly to make people laugh,” he says, “But along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view.”

So there’s some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?

“Sometimes. Other times not.  Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.”

Dave had similar reasons, albeit from his cave of delusion where nationwide fame and critical acclaim were just around the corner, adding: “I find it interesting to explore whether the audience are laughing at a joke just because they get it, or because it’s actually funny.”

His principal jokes, he tells me, come to him when he is: a) lowering onto the toilet; or b) smoking a cigarette out of his window. “I get my inspiration mostly during the moments that I am pulling down my trousers to sit on the bog, or when I’ve just started a cigarette and can’t reach a pen, as I smoke by the window, so as not to offend my girlfriend’s health. These seem to be the moments where neither a pen nor a bit of paper are in sight. It is quite annoying. Since the time I hastily ran from the toilet midway through a poo, I have kept a notebook and a pen cellotaped to a piece of string dangling from the bathroom tiles. Since then I haven’t had any good ideas.”

“It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you,” says Herring, having unquestionably taken the role of sage for the current conversation with Stordy, “It’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms.” It felt that this was Stordy’s central conflict. He seemed desperate for fame and seemed to merely use comedy as a vehicle on the road to it, without showing any respect for the medium or its followers.

Stordy: (Introduce segue into final bit)

A natural conclusion to any interview, discussion of the future usually seems a befitting end point and possibly one offering hope. So Dave, any plans for the future?

“I’m looking to invest in a Segway to help smooth out my act. The rhythm’s a bit jarring and staccato at the moment. It might be able to help me refine the sudden shifts from one topic to the next. At the end of one bit I’d get the Segway and ride it across the stage, maybe through the audience, venue permitting, and jump off to start the next bit. It’s an expensive joke though. About £4000 expensive. But you can’t put a price on innovation. I am worried about the health and safety repercussions though. You can’t do nuffin’ no more. It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Despite the price, I tell him, it seems like a cheap joke. So if it isn’t elaborate visual gags, what is it that makes good comedy?

Stordy: (Ride Segway in)

“I used to think comedy was like blowing smoke into a long stream of speed-walkers’ faces,” Stordy tells me, “You know, annoying and confrontational. But the more I look at it, it seems more like blowing smoke into the faces of an oncoming pack of cyclists. Pretty futile, if not incidentally mildly amusing.”

Not the strongest point to end our time together. Richard, we’ll leave it to you:

“I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty,” says Herring, “But some of it is about lies. There are no rules.”

Stordy: (Ride Segway out)

Dream Team: The Brothers Quay

In 1995, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve interviewed twin brothers Timothy and Stephen Quay about their beautiful full-length debut Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. Many thanks to the author for permission to reprint in full.

The animated-puppet worlds of the Brothers Quay have entranced art cinephiles since 1979. Seemingly made by miniature shadow-fairies rather than the actual tall humans the Quays are, their films – Nocturna Artificialia, 1979, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, 1984, Street of Crocodiles, 1986, Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1987 – and music videos, including the award-winning ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel, take us eyeball and eardrum through fantastically handcrafted architecturally impossible visions of lost modernity. Deeply intellectual, their work is suffused with moodiness, patterned after the writers who inspire them: Franz Kafka, Bruno Schultz, and the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, whose Jakob von Gunten, 1908, served as the armature for their first live-action and full-length feature film, Institute Benjamenta, which premiered at New York’s Film Forum in March.

Institute Benjamenta – the Institute is a school for servants – is smart and beautiful. Each shot is its own still; each edit, a dazzling transformation of narrative space. As such, Institute Benjamenta is as much a foray into the memory of film itself, a sensuous evocation of the cinema of the miraculous (Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Maya Deren, Sergei Paradjanov), as it is a fairy tale of spirits crushed by the soul-killing monotony of rules, repetition, and subordination.

In reputation the Brothers Quay are wrapped in mystery, including whispers about their dense and dark London atelier (Koninck studios, which they founded in 1980 with their producer, Keith Griffiths), rumored to be crammed with such things as antique dolls in bell jars and stacks of crumbling insect wings. I half expected to find them a pair of wizened gnomes with rusty screws, butterfly dust, and cobwebs dangling from their hair. Nothing so exorbitant – only two disarmingly friendly, whirling personas of elegantly rumpled charisma, who just happen to have turned their accidental birthright as identical twins (born outside Philadelphia in 1947) into one of art’s most ingenious and visionary collaborations. The following conversation took place amidst New York’s blizzard of ‘96, as though the environment were duplicating the atmospheric wonder that the brothers’ films so effortlessly provoke.

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve: A beautiful quotation opens Institute Benjamenta:

Who dares it – has no courage To whom it is missing – feels well Who owns it – is bitterly poor Who is successful – is damaged Who gives it – is as hard as stone Who loves it – stays alone

What is “it”?

The Brothers Quay: “It” is the riddle, the enigma. The quote isn’t from Robert Walser’s novella but from an anonymous folktale, a conundrum, that Carl Orff set to music and that we’ve had a cassette of for 19 years. Our initial ravishment was the music; we’d never had the text translated. Yet it utterly intrigued us and so we began corresponding with the Orff foundation to trace the text’s origin – which of course remains unsolved.

TNG: Music seems almost as primary as the visual for you. You once described it as “just the darkest blood imaginable.”

BQ: Actually, we’re failed composers. What we try to do is create a visualization of a musical space – we want you to hear with your eyes and see with your ears. It’s like saying, What kind of decor, in what parallel world, would evoke that music? So Lech [Jankowski, composer for many of the Quays’ films including Institute Benjamenta] wrote the music before the film was shot. He read the book and wrote suites, which he gave mysterious titles – not ‘Jakob’s Theme’, or ‘Lisa’s Theme’, but ‘Chorale’, and ‘Waltz Z.K. Minor’. He made no direct reference to the book whatsoever, at least to our knowledge.

TNG: Filmmakers are often interested in character, but what’s most alive for you is the depth or “animation” of sets and objects. Humans seem like an afterthought.

BQ: Not exactly. It’s just that they’re no more important than anything else. In Institute Benjamenta, what is most magnetized is the space itself. The Institute is the main actor, or the main character, and as a character it exerts a dominion and sway. We wanted it to carry the essential mysterium of the tale, as though it had its own inner life and former existences, which seemed to dream upon its inhabitants and exert its conspiratorial spells and undertows on them. We were looking for that Walserian notion of a world half awake, half asleep, in between.

TNG: Could you map the Institute for me? I mean, does it really exist as phenomenal space, or is it more a miraculous space?

BQ: With the puppet films, we came to terms with conceiving of space: whether it was to be stylized (the great privilege of animation) or realistic, a metaphysical space or a fantastic, nongeographical space, a mental configuration. There could also be analogic spaces, created in the editing process, or abstract spaces, created by massive close-ups and deficient depths of focus – by violations of scale. Whatever form the space took, it was always firstly a poetic vessel through which the fiction would course.

We’ve tried to explore different aspects of space in all our films. In Institute Benjamenta, we searched particularly for mental spaces. Since our location – a dilapidated old mansion – had to be a “found” space (unlike in our puppet films), we had to free it of its own geographics. The Institute seems to be positioned in a city traversed by trams. It’s also beside a port, and it’s also encroached upon from behind by a forest. In fact the forest is slowly invading it, like the tides.

To every space is allied its own quality of light, and this too should be a poetic conception. Light creates the essential Stimmung, the metaphysical climate, those “thicknesses” in the space itself. For Lisa [Alice Krige], the Institute’s instructress, the building is a realm of light. Light swells, advances, becomes like liquid myrrh, glows and invades her. At other times it may be a trapped, fetid, dead light, or an annihilating, corrosive light. What happens in the shadow, in the gray regions, also interests us – all that is elusive and fugitive, all that can only be said in those beautiful half-tones, or in whispers, in deep shade.

TNG:In the puppet films, you controlled every aspect of production; you can’t do that in live action. Yet you’ve managed to translate your miraculous space, and your whole point of view. To be honest, I was surprised at the effortless transition you made.

BQ: Though the puppet films hadn’t prepared us for the social aspect of ensemble work, we’d worked in theater and opera before [the Quays have designed stage productions in England and Europe], so we knew the value of collaboration, and we realized that we’d have to stop mumbling between ourselves and make ourselves intelligible to our team. We seemed to have earned everyone’s loyalty – that, or they all felt sorry for us.

For the mise-en-scene, we worked with our friend Alan Passes, a writer. We approached the novella with a free hand, trying to conceive it from an imagistic point of view – almost like a silent film. Camera, quality of light, decor, objects, sound and music, dialogue, voice-overs: we tried to create a synthesis of all these metiers. And that’s exactly how we’ve worked all these years in our puppet films.

TNG: I have a personal question about you guys as identical twins.

BQ: Oh, that one.

TNG: I know there’s frustration with the question, but it’s also a logical one: you do experience an entirely different metaphysical existence from the rest of us. This struck me because Lisa’s isolation is a big theme in the film. So I want to know – do you ever experience loneliness? Could you? Or is that outside your experience?

BQ: It would take one of us dying to know what that would be. Until then it’s a mystery.

TNG: Do you know how profound that is in terms of us “singulars”? We go through the world –

BQ: – always alone, searching for some possible other…

TNG: For most of us, encouplement only comes through the lover.

BQ: Yes, in some way our relationship is a reproach or challenge to marriage in the sense that you have to find your soul mate, whereas we had –

TNG: Your soul mate from the very beginning?

BQ: From the very beginning. It was just something that was natural. We always went around together; we couldn’t even help it. I guess the proper thing would be to get a life, get married, break up, but film has actually brought us closer, because of the collaboration. We did each do our own drawings when we were in art school, though.

TNG: Did you draw similarly?

BQ: We both drew with our right hands.

TNG: Okay … but did you have different interests in what you drew?

BQ: We always had a similar, literary interest. We constantly absorbed the same material. There was no way one of us could discover something the other one hadn’t already seen or read or heard about.

TNG: So you really are a unit; more one than two.

BQ: Yes.

TNG: And that’s why it’s frustrating when people want to –

BQ: – search for the dissonance. They want to say, Which one’s who? We always say it’s just the twins, just the Quays. The films aren’t made by Timothy or by Stephen, or by Stephen or Timothy.

TNG: You seem born to make your puppet films, as though you were making puppets and environments as children. But you apparently got into puppets almost as a kind of eccentric dare.

BQ: The British Film Institute said they would give us money for something experimental. We said, We’ve never done puppets, so why not – it was the most experimental thing we could think of. We’d only been illustrators at that point. And we figured if we failed, it would at least be a beautifully slow suicide.

TNG: Suicide?

BQ: Because there were no great expectations. Also, in our huge ignorance at that time (1979), puppet films not for children seemed virtually extinct. But then we saw quite a few puppet films made for adults, and they intrigued us. It was just an intuition that this was something we wanted to explore.

TNG: How do you conceptualize what you’re going to shoot?

BQ: We can bluff a storyboard, but we know from experience that when you’re confronted with the physical space itself (whether it’s puppet space or live action), the space blossoms. You might say, Let’s use a 50-millimeter lens here, but by mistake the camera has a 105-millimeter lens on, and you say, That’s it! We have a great belief in accidents. We sort of nurture them and trap them and build upon them. We’re appallingly open to the chance encounter. We always have a drift, an arc, for a project, we know where we’re going – but it’s a thread, a shimmering web. Things happen as we go along. We’ll discover things.

TNG: As oblique as your work can be, I do see a theme. It has to do with meaningful versus alienated labor. You seem to revel in artisanal craft-like puppet animation, where the hand is utterly involved and you’re immersed in the material process. For you, work in a modern or postindustrial capitalist society is soul-killing.

BQ: Our work is so close to us it isn’t work – it’s a way of rendering life at its fullest. And in puppetry your hands do a lot of thinking. As for Institute Benjamenta, it’s a metaphor at zero degree, of course, in which millions are already enrolled. An image of Kafka’s comes to mind: he spoke of chewing on the sawdust already chewed on by thousands of others. But suspended over the story of a school for servants there’s also a fairy tale – essentially Sleeping Beauty. Walser himself talked about his book as a “senseless but meaningful fairy tale.” There’s a ward with a deer-hoofed wand (Lisa); an ogre (Lisa’s brother Herr Benjamenta [Gottfried John]); seven dwarfs (the students); and the princeling, Jakob [Mark Rylance], who arrives with a kiss.

TNG: What’s the significance of all the antlers and stag imagery in the Institute?

BQ: They’re not in the book. But we thought, the Institute had an existence before it trained servants. So we imagined it had been a factory for making perfume. Musk comes from the male deer – actually from a deer without antlers, but we took a little poetic license.

We also imagined that the man who had run this factory had had a Wunderkammer room where he collected somewhat pathological deer imagery. This is the museum that Jakob discovers. Like the Institute, it’s a maze. On one side of it there’s a hell jar of ejaculate of stag, from when they’re rutting. We got the idea when we were sawing antlers one day and as the horn fell onto the paper it smelled of sperm. Did you know that when an antler deroutes, they presume – it’s not really known – that it’s because the deer’s been shot in the testicle? When a deer is hunted, it turns its behind to the gunshot to run away. If the bullet hits the testicle, that – possibly – deroutes the antler.

TNG: Which means what – that it falls out?

BQ: No, that it becomes aberrational. We have collections of antlers with these extraordinary detours and florescences – a flowering of the testicles in the opposite direction.

All of that was a subtext. We were interested in this contamination of the Institute by the dead perfume factory. Herr Benjamenta closes himself down into this world of deer memorabilia – almost as though it was he who’d been wounded in the testicle. Then the Institute itself, in that it’s for teaching servants, is like a reservation of young bucks – eunuchs. These guys are learning the art of demeaning repetitive labor. They’re being taught an abstraction, an ideal code or system: “Work more, wish less.” And all those elements come together with the animal kingdom in the film’s layer of fairy tale.

TNG: Walser himself attended a school for servants, didn’t he?

BQ: Yes, though not for long. For us, Jakob is a quiet portrait of Walser. He spent the last 26 years of his life in an asylum. At the beginning he still wrote; then he stopped. He said, “I’m here to be mad, not to write.” He died on a walk in the snow on Christmas day. That’s why Mark Rylance does that gesture at the end with his hat – because Walser was found facedown in the snow with his hat falling off, one hand on his heart. It’s the most fairy tale-ish ending. In one of his earliest novels he talks about coming across a poet dead in the snow.

TNG: Is that landscape of death the same landscape that ends Institute Benjamenta?

BQ: Oh yes – in a sense we just tried to create that final realm. We actually took that last walk of Walser’s when we were in Switzerland – we had this photograph of him dead, and we were wandering around trying to position it in the landscape. We never asked Mark to make that gesture; he just did it, and it was only when we were looking at the rushes that we went “@?!@?!!,” because we had shown him the photograph.

TNG: Your description of walking, looking for Walser, suggests how you inhabit the world as flâneurs – wandering around, looking not for something specific but just for what the world will give you. That’s how you build your esthetic.

BQ: Absolutely – walking in the street, we’re always taking photographs of strange still-lifes, the conjunctions and little epiphanies that life supplies. You can miss them but you shouldn’t. We want to uncover those quiet, elusive moments, those drifts that just go off.

TNG: There’s an impression of you as these hermetic souls, like watchmakers laboring at your fantastic miniature constructions. Actually, though, the phenomenal world is as much your laboratory as the music or literature that inspires you.

BQ: Exactly. In a way, Street of Crocodiles was just us documenting Poland, the Krakow and Warsaw of 1974 to ‘86. We’d walk around and photograph, say, a little shop window, empty except for a high-heeled stiletto with little cleats going around it. We generate material just by walking about. An event happens and we tuck it away.

TNG: So though people often bring up the “s” word with you, you’re really materialists, not surrealists.

BQ: Yes, because the material is generated, not invented. We just see it. People do sort of want to stick the label “surrealist” on us, but the world gives these things up to us – they really happen. Mostly, we want things to remain true to themselves. The object can speak in whispers if you let it.

TNG: Which reminds me of the forks in Institute Benjamenta – in the opening scene, the actors make them “sing” by tapping them before using them to eat. Though those moments are live action, they’re actually about animation in the deepest sense: endowing the inanimate with life. You make it seem as if using a fork just to eat is like making people into zeros in their job. In fact your work is furious at how not just humans have been made inanimate, but objects as well: they’ve been stripped of their magic, their “soul,” which you give back to them.

BQ: We knew the fork was part of the enigma. It’s a fantastic thing! We adore forks – part of a ritual, yet so practical.

TNG: And the fork is potent thematically, because so much of the Institute’s teaching is the kind of empty social forms typified by those codes about using a fork properly. So what a wonderful subversion when Jakob “plays” the fork – one of those quiet, sly moments that the worker develops within a space bound by rules. The same with that lesson on how to present a napkin, which you choreograph into a beautiful somnambulistic ritual.

BQ: That scene was conceived to Lech’s music. We worked it visually like a musical cadenza.

Walser was attracted by all that was hard, gray, and lowly. He liked to take the circumference of something small and insignificant – a button, an apple, trouser cuffs, things that were a kind of degree zero – and to show that by passing through the zero, as Jakob does, one could be liberated. That’s why Kraus [Daniel Smith], the servant, who is the perfect zero, is also the pearl in the oyster – the pearl permanently secreted by the Institute.

TNG: At the end of the film, when Jakob and Herr Benjamenta leave the Institute, is it supposed to look like they’re in one of those snow-filled glass-ball paperweights?

BQ: Yes. At that point we wanted it to appear almost as though Kraus were telling the tale. He’s feeding the fish, and the food falls into the fishbowl; so it’s as though he’s making snow for the fish. Having Jacob and Herr Benjamenta in the snow, which looks as though they were in a glass bowl, gave it that slightly fairy-tale ending.

TNG: Herr Benjamenta tells Jakob, “I’ve pronounced the Institute dead. We are free… Follow me out of this world forever.” Yet Kraus remains. Lisa is dead – killed by the Institute, or, better, by her evolving inability to enact its rules.

BQ: These people course through the film in strange trajectories: Lisa is slowly arcing down, Herr Benjamenta is rising euphorically, and Kraus will be the pearl secreted by the Institute. He’ll be there for all time, with the fish in the goldfish bowl, just turning these endless circles. And Jakob is the princeling who should have woken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss of life, but he’s brought the kiss of death.

TNG: Jakob says at one point, “As long as I obey her, she will live.” But he has instigated in Lisa the desire not to be obeyed, the desire to move beyond this world in which, a sign reads, “Rules have already thought of everything.” But why is it Herr Benjamenta who gets to leave with Jakob at the end?

BQ: In his final speech, he says, “Once I was crowned with success, the world smiled on me. But I hated the world. Hated existing. Hated those I taught to take orders… But no longer, now that I am not a king…”

TNG: “… Now I want to live…”

BQ: Yes, “Now I want to live.” But the film in fact ends unexpectedly, with Kraus – the genuine work of God, the nothing, the servant. Earlier, Lisa has told Jakob that God gives a Kraus to the world in order to entrust it with an insoluble riddle. This line is an echo of that fiddling opening quotation from Orff. And so, ending with Kraus, the film ends as it begins, with a riddle; the circle is reformed. And maybe we’re no wiser, because, as Lisa’s voice from the heavens says in the film, “Things unfathomed still occur. And this fairy tale will tell you last.”

Hear No Evil: Continuum 33 1/3 Music Series

33 1/3 has been publishing some of the smartest and sparkiest music books for just shy of a decade. These slim volumes can be devoured in a single hit but the best of them roll around your mind for days. David Barker is series editor. We asked him to colour in the background behind the books

Dusty in MemphisAt Spike, we’re big fans of the 33 1/3 series of music books. You’ll be familiar with them if you’ve browsed a record or book shop over the last half-decade. Each of these pocket-sized editions focuses on a single album, drilling down to explore various elements of it. Each volume is different, some telling the story of the record, others analysing the songs themselves. It’s this flexibility that keeps the format invigorated. Furthermore, the slimness of each book is a definite advantage (each being roughly 130 pages long), forcing a salient brevity on the writers. Hugo Wilcken’s book on Low and Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless are personal favourites. Both are genuinely informative and entertaining, packing a lot of insight into a small space. Both are also very good at demythologising some apocryphal tales. I’d also recommend Mark Polizzotti’s Highway 61 Revisited, but most of them a extremely readable. The latest instalment is Bryan Waterman’s volume on Television’s Marquee Moon, carefully researched with the aid of Richard Hell’s archives.

There’s something both classic and infinitely flexible about the series. Where did the idea come from?

The 33 1/3 series was my idea, way back in 2002. I’ve been working at Continuum since 1996, first in London, then in New York. Initially I drew up a list of 50 or so albums that I thought people would enjoy writing about, and then started contacting some writers, musicians and broadcasters to see if anybody actually wanted to do such a thing. It turned out that a lot of people were really into the idea so I pitched it to the board at Continuum and we were up and running pretty quickly.

Low ProfileHow do you decide which titles to go with? It seems to be love rather than demographics?

When I was first putting the series together, there was a list of possible albums for people to write about–from Nation of Millions to Bat Out of Hell, from Murmur to Thriller, and from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to Exile on Main St. But very quickly it became apparent that most people I contacted were more interested in writing about an album that wasn’t on my original list, so it rather snowballed from there. You could certainly argue that the series started out with a larger focus on “classic rock”–Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Bowie, Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Dylan were all in the first 20 titles–but as it became more established we felt more confident about publishing volumes in different genres and about artists who were perhaps less well-known. So we’ve ended up, I hope, with an interesting range that covers some obvious stuff but also people like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Celine Dion, Guided by Voices, Van Dyke Parks, and Slint. For info about the best-selling titles, best place to look is here.

I love too many of the books to be able to identify one as a personal favourite, but right now I’d say I have the fondest memories of the books about Dusty Springfield, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, The Band, Beastie Boys and The Pixies. If I was to write one of these? I’d probably go for Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, but it wouldn’t sell!

There’s a good blog post from the last time we had an open call for proposals. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to read through that number of proposals, and have learned so much about music–and about writing–in the process. Although, honestly, sending out rejection letters to approximately 580 people is nobody’s idea of fun…

Another Green WorldI know Geeta Dayal was approached by Brian Eno. Do you get much feedback from the artists themselves? Any angry faxes from Morrissey?

Somewhat inevitably, we’re more likely to hear from, or be in touch with, the less famous of the artists covered by the series. People like The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices and Van Dyke Parks have all been extremely helpful. We never heard anything from Celine Dion, which was a shame. And I’d love to know if Dylan likes our Highway 61 book, as I’m sure it’s one of the very best of the many, many Dylan books published so far. Thurston Moore was kind enough to inform us, on the series blog, that our book about Daydream Nation had a couple of lyrics transcribed incorrectly. That was a little awkward. But it was really gratifying to learn that Eno was so fond of Geeta Dayal’s book about Another Green World.

Any plans to branch out into films or novels? Greil Marcus managed a whole book just on ‘Like a Rolling Stone’!

No plans to branch out, although I should point out that Soft Skull Press launched a great series of small books about films, which is often being compared to the 33 1/3 series.

In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds talks about a moment in the 80s when post-punk started looking back. Has pop reached its ‘classical’ phase where we endlessly debate the canon?

I believe the canon will keep evolving. And while it was never the intention of the series to claim these as the best albums ever made, I do hope that we’ve managed to open some new debates about what can be considered a great album and that we’ve managed to turn people on to some great music that they’ve perhaps not tried before. And perhaps most importantly of all (to my mind at least) that the series has explored and encouraged different ways of writing about music. There are so many stories still to be told, and so many ways of telling them.

Naima Mora: Galaxy of Tar

Naima Mora

Best known as the mohawk-sporting outsider who won America’s Next Top Model, Naima Mora prefers being the vocalist for the prog-inclined Galaxy of Tar. Jeanette Hewitt tracked her down

First brought to my attention as the softly spoken and serene multi-cultural young lady whose silky smooth voice contrasted deeply with her punk-rock exterior, Naima Mora, the winner of season four of America’s Next Top Model, is now the vocalist in rock bank Galaxy of Tar. After following her career over the last six years, from the catwalk via the television studio to what seems to be her real passion of music, I discovered her band through Twitter. Through our email communication Naima was as courteous and lovely as her previous interviews suggest and she enthusiastically agreed to answer some questions for Spike Magazine.

Galaxy of TarNaima, you come from a very talented family: your father is a jazz percussionist, your grandparents are painters/sculptors, your sister is a vocalist for rock group livemas and your twin sister is a photographer. Was it inevitable that you would end up in the arts and entertainment industry?

I definitely think that it was inevitable that I ended up in the arts. Growing up in my household, my sisters and I were always encouraged to explore our creativity. Nia actually picked up her camera when we were 13 and I remember Ife had an all girls band that would practice in the basement when my parents weren’t down there with their own Latin-jazz group. Not sure if it’s in the blood or familial influence, but all the right ingredients were in play to create who I have become.

You’ve done it all: actress, ballet, model and musician. What has been/is your favourite and, although you are still modelling, would you ever consider a return to dance or acting?

I can say that living as a musician and playing with my group Galaxy of Tar is the most fun for me. It’s probably unfair to separate everything though, because it all contributes to who I am today. I pull a lot of influence from ballet and classical theatre into my rock shows, the drama of it. I also draw a lot aesthetically from modelling. Everything I’ve done in my life I have done with love, thus it’s all been rewarding! All in all, I’m a performer and a storyteller that has been granted magnificent tools from many talented people in several beautiful mediums of expression.

Would you say that you use your modelling to finance your greater passion of music?

Modelling has definitely helped me to finance many other creative projects I am currently involved with, music being one of them. The thing though is that I really love and enjoy my day job and while music is my main focus in my life right now, I am still passionate about modelling.

At the last count, you had five tattoos. In the modelling world it seems the majority of clients want a blank canvas. Do you feel that you can be more ‘yourself’ in the world of rock, and do you have any plans for further body art?

Ha ha, that’s a good question that people actually ask me quite often. I now have six tattoos and yes, I do feel that I can express myself more truly as a musician. It’s completely different, as when I model I am working to express myself through someone else’s vision. For a lot of models just starting off, it’s a little difficult to book more work with tattoos, because that doesn’t always fit into a client’s vision. It also depends on how you brand yourself within the industry. I, for example, have a particular androgynous quality and what they call “edge”, so my tattoos work quite well with what clients want to hire me for. I do plan on getting more ink… I really love my tattoos and I want to get more someday. Also, you can’t model forever, so why live my life based on something so temporary? I just have to maintain true to who I am.

You’ve won numerous awards, including the Spirit of Detroit, the California Legislature Assembly Certificate of Recognition and the prestigious Key to the City of Cincinnati. How does this make you feel and which award has meant the most to you personally?

Wow, yeah, it makes me feel proud of myself. I have always just striven to inspire people towards observing and creating beauty and feeling beautiful within themselves. So to be awarded was a bit strange at first, because I’m just being me. But I’m proud of it now. Really it doesn’t matter whether we are awarded or not, because the biggest reward is and always will be what stays with us forever. That feeling you get when you’re helping out a close friend who’s sick in bed with the flu and who really needs you. Everyone knows the feeling, its whether we decided to extend ourselves this way to strangers that makes the biggest difference within.

Naima MoraWhich musicians inspire the sound for your rock band Galaxy of Tar and what genre of music would you file your sound under?

Well, I guess the closest genre that Galaxy of Tar would fit into is the current definition of prog-rock. We do a lot of experimenting with time signatures and strange sounds. We want to create something new and interesting to listen to. Of course all creation is a continuum of and has been influenced by what came before. Our strongest influences go from prog bands like Yes, Rush, King Crimson to Latin music (as Elias and I are both of Latin origin) to electronic/trip-hop music with the likes of Björk, Carl Craig, Lamb. Elias and I write and both contribute, so it really depends on how the music expresses itself organically after we have a basic idea. It always maintains true to our style and the types of music that has moved our lives and consciousness.

How long have you known your musical partner, Elias Diaz and how did you meet? Are you in sync or do you often have conflicting musical ideas?

We met a few years ago and Elias was actually playing with my sister’s band livemas. That project didn’t however continue as all things do at a certain point. Ife has moved on and actually just released her first solo project titled In Love Story. Elias and I went on to work with our previous group. We had a lot of creative conflicts in our first band with the other members, so we all thought it best to move on. Elias and I share a lot of same work ethic, passion for the music we write, and an understanding of each other’s perspectives. We do clash at times, but we both try to remember to put our egos aside, open our opinions, and go with what works best for the music.

You’ve been touring throughout New York, do you have plans to take the band nationwide and maybe further afield?

With our first album, Pneuma, we have been touring Galaxy of Tar a lot in New York and New England. We do plan on doing a national tour soon and definitely the west coast in a few month’s time. Now we are taking a few months just to write a new album. It’s really quite amazing to find out the possibilities of what we can create when we open ourselves up creatively and work there consciously and unconsciously.

Your myspace page reports Galaxy of Tar as being unsigned. Are you actively seeking a label or do you find you have more freedom in releasing your own material?

As Galaxy of Tar, we are just working right now a lot on creating good music and playing it for people who are willing to listen and who are open to new things.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAUjz5ZOe1Y

Further Resources:

  • Both albums from Galaxy of Tar, *The Covers EP and Pneuma, are available from the website galaxyoftar.com

Ipswich Zero 6: A Meeting with Ray Hollingsworth

There’s nothing new about writers using real crimes for research, but Ray Hollingsworth’s involvement in the high-profile murders of Ipswich working girls became a lot more personal. Jeanette Hewitt met the author to find out more

Ray Hollingsworth Ipswich Zero 6In 2006, my hometown of Ipswich was catapulted into the global media by a serial killer preying on the working girls of the red light district. In 2011, Ipswich Zero 6 was published, a personal and factual mix of real-life documentation, poetry, filmscape and scintillating records of conversations with the police, the media and the girls themselves.

Ipswich Zero 6 was born out of Ray Hollingsworth’s original idea for a screenplay–part fact, part fiction–set in the Ipswich underworld. For accuracy, Ray spoke with the women and, from the excerpts in his book, they were honest and willing to talk, and didn’t seem to mind that Ray was basing his writings on them.

I read Ipswich Zero 6, along with Ray’s previous book of poetry (Dirty Blonde at the Cash Machine) and although I’d followed the tragedy on the news when it was happening, I discovered a lot more from the book and my subsequent conversations with Ray. It portrays these women as human beings, not simply prostitutes. The book goes straight to the heart of the story, beginning with the realisation that girls were going missing, some of whom Ray had gotten to know on a personal level. It narrates how Ray, at one point a low-key suspect, offered his help to the police as, from his research and subsequent friendship with them, he now knew these people and the area very well, and becoming almost a regular on Sky News as an on-the-scene correspondent.

Interestingly, the book is broken up into 6 parts. ‘Mediascape’, a general background as to what was happening in and around Ipswich in December 2006, Ray’s interviews and correspondence with the media, the arrests that were made and the subsequent charges brought against Steve Wright. The second part, ‘Voices’, includes conversations with the girls, mostly between the summer of 2005 and spring 2006; a collection of interviews which are sometimes humorous, some frightening, some touching but each brutally honest about the lifestyle these girls have chosen. The ‘Soundscape’ section is an eclectic mix of thoughts and poetry set against a backdrop of audio, which one must imagine and embrace when reading this part of the book. For example, the sounds range from an amusement arcade and police sirens to heart monitors in a hospital. ‘Poetics’ was written between the summer of 2005 through to 2007–a collection of poetry, again, very honest and beautifully written.

‘Soundscape’ is probably the section that captured me most of all. At Ray’s own admission, the idea for the film was born out of a failed relationship that made him turn to the twilight underworld of Ipswich, a deliberate form of escapism on his part, and one that he described as becoming almost an addiction. It is very clear at this stage that the line between the film and reality blurred somewhat, and it is hard to tell at points which is real and which is the fantasy. This however, makes reading all the more compelling. The final instalment of the book, ‘Reflections’, is just that: reflecting. Ray’s ideas on how some of the lives of these women could have been saved are especially poignant.

I met with Ray a few weeks after reading the book. For authenticity and to set the scene, we arranged to meet outside the convicted killer’s former home. Steve Wright’s old house is in the heart of what was the Ipswich red light district. It is now, I’m assured, defunct. Ray’s interest in crime scenes was apparent immediately, as he asked me if I would like to look behind the house, the car park area, which had been cordoned off on his previous visits around the time of the murders. As we surveyed the area and discussed what Ipswich was like at that time, Ray talked animatedly about his involvement with the girls. He was very much a friend to them, at a point in his life where I deduced he also needed a friend. Some of them stayed at his home, although never for longer than about eight hours, he pointed out, as this was when their drugs would begin to wear off and they would need to hunt again. Sometimes he looked after them in an almost fatherly way, washing their hair, feeding them and sometimes there was sex. Although Ray freely admitted to having sexual relations with the women, I got the impression this was not first on his list of priorities. These women were people first in his eyes, prostitutes to him almost as an afterthought.

Ray Hollingsworth Dirty BlondeIpswich Zero 6, like all of Ray’s previous five books, is self-published. Prior to our interview, I read that Ray received one rejection and never tried again. As somebody who kept battering at the publisher’s doors for almost ten years before my work was accepted, this difference of opinion interested me. I asked Ray why he had not pursued more publishing houses. His answer was that he “doesn’t like the publishing industry”. As Ray is more centred towards poetry, he confessed that he found the British poetry industry rather political and, as his work is quite edgy, he felt he wouldn’t stand a chance at getting his foot in the door and being accepted. Rather than waste time, he simply published his works himself, which I found refreshingly honest and true to oneself. I also asked Ray if he had to seek permission for the use of the content in Ipswich Zero 6 or whether he had a free reign on it. He didn’t know, and didn’t much care!

As we spoke, I discovered that Ray has a passion for crime scenes, in particular those that are unsolved, or where a miscarriage of justice has occurred. He told me of extensive research that he has done on the case of Madeleine McCann and Jeremy Bamber among others. We discussed theories and case points in great detail covering a lot of subjects, most of which Ray still has a hand in.

What impressed me most is Ray’s drive and determination. If he wants something, he goes after it with a vengeance. After completing Dirty Blonde at the Cash Machine, for example, he was in London with a friend, when he saw a woman walk past and knew instantly she was the model that he wanted to portray the ‘blonde’ in his book. He followed her, waiting whilst she went into MacDonald’s and when she emerged, he approached her, telling her that he had followed her and explaining his interest in her. Some young women would have run at this point, but Ray has a direct, honest way of speaking, getting straight to the point and posing no threat whatsoever. This lady, Julie Patterson, was the model featured in the photo shoots for Dirty Blonde. Another example of Ray’s persistence is his marketing of his book. By telephoning Waterstone’s himself and delivering stock, he succeeded in having the major book retailer stock Ipswich Zero 6.

There are many adjectives that one could use to describe Ray and his slightly off key-style of existing both in life and in his words: crazy fool, fearless, determined, passionate, admirable. Take your pick. My conclusion is that more of us might learn to live like him.

Further Resources:

  • Interview with Ray Hollingsworth for the BBC

Jill McGivering: Far from my Father’s House

Jill McGivering is a BBC foreign correspondent and has reported from all over the world, including some of its poorest and most conflict scarred countries. In Far from my Father’s House, her second novel, she employs her wealth of experience in the field to tell tale of Layla, a young Muslim woman, and the destruction of her family life by the Taliban. The author answered a few questions about her life and career as a writer.

Jill McGivering

As a foreign news correspondent for the BBC you’ve travelled all over the world and must’ve seen horrifying and extraordinary things: can you give us examples of humanity at its best and at its worst?

I have witnessed first hand many instances of the horrific treatment of vulnerable people in my work as a correspondent: young girls being enslaved to work as prostitutes, babies being bought and sold, the mental ill being kept in chains and villagers murdering fellow families because they’re from a different caste or religion. And that is not counting the suffering and violence associated with armed conflict and, in a different way, with natural disasters.

It would be easy to have a cynical view of human nature. But what heartens me is the knowledge that I am not the only person who finds such stories distressing. In all these environments, I have come across many examples of people who are brave enough to take a stand against injustice and fight for other people’s rights and safety, often at great personal risk. I’ve also seen great acts of kindness – for example, families who are desperately poor themselves but who willingly take in a family of strangers and feed and shelter them, just because they are in need – or, during murderous riots, people who risked their own lives by intervening to try to defend those under attack. In a less direct way, it is also humbling when I have broadcast a report and afterwards “ordinary” people, who live thousands of miles away in a different culture, get in touch with me to ask how they can help or how they can send money to the people in need.

You’re currently based in London: do you prefer to be at home and travel on assignments, or do you prefer long-term postings abroad, such as those in Delhi and Washington, DC? Would you like to leave the UK again and, for that matter, do you consider the UK your home?

I definitely consider the UK to be home. I was born and brought up here and my family lives here – and has done for as far back as we can trace the family tree. I loved living overseas for almost all of my 20s and 30s. It was exciting and I learned so much about other cultures, about people, about news and, of course, about myself. But now I am very happy to have the best of both worlds: living in London but having the chance to travel often for work and pleasure.

To what extent are the characters, locations and situations described in your novels based on your experiences as a journalist?

I try to draw on elements of my own experiences to give my novels credibility and authenticity. My real life experiences help me, for example, to give a strong sense of place and describe what a particular environment feels, smells and looks like. It also feeds the books in terms of developing key themes and ideas.

My first novel, The Last Kestrel, is set in Helmand Province during the current conflict and it would have been really hard to describe a village in Helmand, give a sense of the local culture and reflect an experience of a journalist who is embedded with the British military if I hadn’t experienced these things for myself.

But it’s also extremely important that the actual events, the plot lines and characters are all fictional. It’s almost a case of knowing a place to start with – then taking a big step away from the real world, going into the imagination and only then starting to write. Also plot is very different from real life and needs to come to reasonably satisfying resolutions and conclusions.

Far from my Father’s House is a case in point. I’ve spent time in relief camps in North West Pakistan, interviewing people who have escaped from communities which had been taken over by the Taliban and some of the stories I heard and the women I met made me inspired, some time later, to sit down and imagine a set of fictional characters and the journeys they might take.

Do you write your fiction with an agenda? That is to say, are you trying to create a work of art or raise social issues? ‘Both’, of course, is an entirely reasonable answer.

I don’t want to pursue an agenda. That would imply for a start that I thought I had the answers – and a theme in the novels is that no-one really does. Agendas are too simple. The moral landscapes in all my novels are very grey. There are no good or bad characters. The characters are all people who are doing the best they can to survive and to pursue their dreams in very difficult situations and while they are coming under immense internal and external pressure. I’d like readers to have a sense of the humanity of these characters – with all the complexities and struggles that humanity involves. So they’re not intended to deliver simple social messages – that would be unrealistic and too convenient.

Who are the writers that you admire and enjoy?

I used to love Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager – especially To The Lighthouse. Her use of language was so lyrical and groundbreaking. More recently I’ve really enjoyed the novels of Sarah Waters – probably Fingersmith is my favourite – for their clever plotting and very clean but evocative use of language.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road blew me away when I first read it. It’s harrowing but also a very moving examination of a man’s love for his child.

One of my favourite recent books was Wolf Hall – a very worthy winner of the Booker Prize. She has such a gift for narrative and for character. I felt bereft when I finished it – and can’t wait for the sequel to come out.

Do you feel that any of them influence your style?

I suspect that all these years as a working journalist have influenced my style more than other writers. My writing used to be more lyrical when I was younger and I was interested in language for its own sake. Now I see language as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The narrative and the characters matter and the words only serve them. Journalism also taught me the discipline of sitting down and getting on with it.

Finally, as a journalist, do you think the recent phone hacking saga will make the public wary of the media as a whole, or reinforce trusted organisations like the BBC?

There’ve always been good and bad journalists, some who are very ethical and some who are less so. I think the public has the sense to realise that good journalism is valuable, in fact essential, and needs to be safeguarded. The current scandals are a terrible shock for the profession but hopefully it will lead to wider debate about what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what’s genuinely in the public interest and what is not.


Far From My Father's House

As McGivering says, all her characters are fictions pulled together from strands of reality and this is most evident in the central character of Layla who is presented to us through the first person. The author gives Layla a very convincing voice which makes the relationship between the girl and her family so engaging, and equally evocative are the descriptions of Pakistan itself. Layla is educated as the son her father never had and sometimes wishes that she indeed been a boy so she could work and travel as the men of her people do. Gender inequalities are a central theme of the book but McGivering is able to avoid ever sounding like a preaching churl of Western values who thinks Muslims have everything wrong.

Layla’s father attempts to resist the Taliban but, despite his courage, his school is crushed by the oppressive agents of that glorified crime ring. There are more attacks on education later in the novel, highlighting that under all totalitarian regimes freedom of thought and expression must be crushed in order to protect the thugs who would seek to control every aspect of their supporters’ lives.

Ellen, a British journalist, and Jamelia, Layla’s father’s first wife, are the other two voices in the book – this time in third person. Sometimes it can be a distraction switching between first and third perspectives but one must ask oneself would anything be lost if it were written in one or the other? In this novel the answer is yes, if the novel were written all in third person then we would lose the keen insight into Layla’s thoughts and feelings; conversely, if it were written in first person from Ellen’s perspective this would be too easy for McGivering.

Throughout the book the author builds tension well and the opening chapters are an immediate hook for the reading – Layla’s fear of being seen by Taliban supporters, even on the first few pages, is especially well rendered. The events surrounding Ellen are narrated equally vividly, however, certain plot twists were somewhat too loudly signalled: the use of the character Adnan by the Taliban and the involvement of the sinister aid huckster Quentin Khan, for example. However, Jamelia was another credible character who lent her strength and wisdom to the men of her family and struggles to overwhelm their inertia in the face of the Taliban.

If there was an off-putting branch of the narrative it was the relationship between Ellen and Frank; this felt superfluous to the overall plot and was not required to keep the reader engaged. One might say that this novel was aimed towards a female audience but the lives of the women themselves are remarkable enough to stand without a love angle.

Perhaps the book could have probed further into issues such as equality for women and education for girls but, as she says above, McGivering does not write with an agenda and literature is not an engine for social change. It is enough to have written a satisfying book that encompasses mystery, adventure and suspense whilst making you think – and all set in a country which every Westerner thinks they know, but which might yet yield some surprises.

The Colour of Money: An Interview with Peter Mountford

Set against the backdrop of South America’s poorest economy, Peter Mountford’s first novel is a smart read on the human side of economic, political and ethical dramas. For the author it was also a long road to publication, as Dan Coxon learns. Portrait by Jennifer Mountford

Peter Mountford by Jennifer MountfordIn a literary landscape dominated by celebrity memoirs and vampire soft porn, Peter Mountford’s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism, stands out like a shining nugget of gold. Telling the story of equities analyst Gabriel de Boya as he collects information on Bolivia for an unscrupulous hedge fund, it’s a novel that feels both steeped in tradition and undeniably of its time. As Gabriel wrangles with his conscience and falls in love, Mountford uses his plight to comment on the political situation in South America, the financial bubble of 2005 just as it was about to burst, and the ethical implications of our Western culture of greed.

It’s also a fantastically good read, and it’s little wonder that the literary world has taken note of Mountford’s achievement. Marrying thriller and romance aspects with unashamed political and financial commentary, A Young Man’s Guide To Late Capitalism is one of the most exciting novels to have come out of the current financial crisis to date–and it’s all the more remarkable for being a debut. Peter Mountford currently lives in Seattle, where he is writer-in-residence for the Seattle Arts and Lectures programme.

When and why did you decide to become a writer?

I started writing by accident. I was 11, I think, and I had this very ornate daydream, but I couldn’t keep track of it all, so I started writing it down. Next thing I knew, I had 50 pages, a novella. When I was 14 I outlined a fictional diary of Vlad Tepes, the medieval prince who was the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Needless to say, I was slightly out of my range with that one and it never came to be.

As an undergraduate, I studied economics and international affairs, and then I went and got a sensible job at a think tank writing about international economics. But I was already a writer, I just didn’t know it. I was sneaking off to write fiction, and the way I was looking at the world, the way I was cultivating and maybe even hoarding interesting life experiences–it was as if I was doing research, and I think I sort of knew it. So, after a couple interesting years being a policy wonk, I quit and started reading Nabokov, Annie Proulx, Milan Kundera–dozens of other great writers. And I started writing three to four hours a day, seven days a week. I haven’t stopped.

Now, mind you, that was 2002 and my ‘debut’ novel was published in 2011.

So what was your journey to publication like during that time?

After embarking on the writing life with lots of youthful vim and vigour in 2002, I began to encounter what’s known, in the business, as the real world. And it was humbling, if not to say crushing. I wrote huge volumes of fiction and got lavished with rejection. My first acceptance for a short story came in 2006, when I was 30 years old. On the plus side, it was an acceptance to the anthology Best New American Voices 2008, but still. By that point I’d collected about a thousand rejections (I keep them all). I’d written and abandoned two-and-a-half novels, and 20-some stories–at least a thousand pages of fiction that will never see the light of day.

In the summer of 2005, my writing turned a corner. I remember it vividly. I was in the middle of the MFA program at the University of Washington and I went to Ecuador for a few weeks, feeling very dejected. The first year at the UW had been a deep low-point. I got savaged with rejection and some very demoralizing critiques. It really broke me down. I began to realise how much higher I needed to aim, how much better I needed to be. At the end of that year I had a very revelatory class with David Shields, who said something to the effect of: ‘Do you really just want to be this dutiful craftsman, creating these quaint stories that are totally antique, totally separated from the world we actually inhabit?’ He said he couldn’t stand to even read that stuff, and I had to admit that I felt the same way.

That summer, Shields got me reading J.M. Coetzee. I went to Ecuador and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read. And when I came back, I was a very different kind of writer and it was obvious, immediately. Within a year, I’d started winning some awards and fellowships and grants. I started publishing in some well-regarded literary journals. In fact, most of what I’ve written since then has been published.

A Young Man’s Guide… reminded me strongly of Graham Greene, specifically the combination of exotic setting, intrigue, and an underlying discussion of everyday morality. Did Greene influence you at all?

Yes, Graham Greene absolutely was a huge influence. In many ways, I more or less aspire to write like he did–both the so-called diversions and the weirder stuff. He was obsessed with God, seemed incapable of not writing about God. I think I’m similarly obsessed with money, how it operates in our planet and in our minds–I set out to write a story about my granny and I end up with a story about money. Other writers I adore include Deborah Eisenberg, Milan Kundera, J.M. Coetzee. Nabokov. And scores of others, of course. The list could go on for days. I’m reading Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists right now and it’s tremendous.

Young Mans Guide To Late CapitalismMoney is one of those topics that great literature often deals with (like love, or religion) but it seems that modern writers are sometimes afraid to address it, or they wilfully avoid it. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s a topic that should be addressed more often?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, recently. It seems that literary-minded people have quietly agreed that finance is somehow not central to the zeitgeist. Money is a deeply taboo subject, obviously, and all the more so among people who consider themselves to be artists. Finance and economics are complicated and often poorly understood, also, and they’re not thought of as sexy. A lot of writers I know are proudly dismissive of economics–they paint it boring–it’s either viewed as nerdy, in the unattractive way, or it’s associated with these cartoonish preppy monsters.

That is nonsense. A cursory glance at our recent history reveals that economics and money are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines virtually everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. It’s not an abstract subject. It’s not just a guy with a calculator. It’s very emotional and makes and breaks the lives of–well, everyone. So, yes, I think it’s a topic that should be addressed more often in literature.

The foreign location feels like a big part of A Young Man’s Guide… too; it’s hard to imagine it being set anywhere else. How early did you settle on Bolivia as your setting? Why that country in particular, and South America in general?

I’ve travelled a lot and most of my writing therefore concerns people living in or visiting foreign countries. It’s not a conscious thing, but I suppose I think that when you’re away from your comfort-zone, your home, you have a slightly heightened perception of things, and it casts your own community, your circumstances, in a radically new light, so it can be an awakening. I like having that space as a kind of foundation for a story. That change in perception is all the more true if the place is extremely different, like Bolivia, rather than, say, England.

Bolivia’s also the poorest country in South America, and it’s a bit intense, a bit too hardcore for most people. Not a big tourist destination. So I liked that. And it’s gorgeous, like you’re on the moon–the moon with shantytowns.

And, finally, and maybe most importantly, Bolivia’s history is a near perfect example for the overall experience of countries that were colonized and brutalized by the Europeans. Their history is heartbreaking. It’s occasionally bizarre beyond belief, too–they lost their coastline in a war with Chile over bat guano, which Bolivia wanted to tax (it contains a useful ingredient in gunpowder). There are countless other surreal milestones, like when someone traded a vast swath of oil-rich jungle with Brazil for a nice white stallion. But beneath it all there’s a harrowing history of Northern-hemisphere-dwelling people, mostly Spanish–although the US certainly did its part during the Cold War, in particular–siphoning natural resources from the land without properly compensating the Bolivian people. In Bolivia this aspect of their history it’s referred to ruefully as ‘El Saqueo’–the sacking.

Having spent so long writing about Bolivia (and talking about it in interviews!) do you feel a stronger bond with the country than you used to? How did writing about it change your relationship with it?

When I started writing the book, I was very interested in Bolivia, and I thought its history was gorgeously bizarre and also very apt, a kind of perfect model for the corrosive long-term effects of centuries of colonial pillaging. Now, I love the country and feel a very personal connection to its people. I have a Google alert on Bolivia and so I now read the news about the country daily. Also, I’ve been very heartened by the responses of Bolivians who’ve read the book, because it’s not the most flattering portrait of the country–but I’ve been contacted by a number of Bolivians who told me that they felt I’d captured La Paz perfectly.

I know you teach creative writing in addition to producing your own work. How do you find that it feeds back into your own writing? Is it an integral part of being a professional writer today?

Richard Ford was in Seattle the other day for an event and an audience member asked him what he liked most about teaching, and he replied, ‘The money.’ So, yeah, it’s an integral part of being a professional writer, especially if you’re not writing bodice-rippers. If you’re writing books that take years to write, the kinds of books that don’t sell very well because they’re ‘difficult,’ then teaching is probably how you pay the rent.

There’s another reply to this question, of course, one that talks about how inspired one gets by one’s students, but that’s nonsense. Or, if someone says it sincerely, they’re probably not much of a writer. I like what David Foster Wallace said about this in a Charlie Rose interview, he said something to the effect of, ‘The first couple years it’s really revelatory, you learn a lot from your students and it’s a very hard experience. Then, once you’ve seen a few thousand undergraduate stories, it becomes just another day job and you no longer learn anything at all from it.’

I like teaching because it gets me out of the house, and it generates some income, and I like the act of talking about writing–that’s why I’m friends with a lot of writers, and when I teach I get paid to have those kinds of conversations. Also, it’s very fun to discover a writer who is fucking amazing and doesn’t know it yet. Some woman, say, who does data entry at a medical supplies company, and I get to inform her that she’s ready to get published, and that she should get in touch with a top-shelf literary agent in New York City at her earliest convenience. That’s fun, but it doesn’t happen that often.

If you were given a time machine that allowed you to go back and tutor your younger self, what advice would you give to the younger you? Or are there any particular skills that you’d tell yourself to work on?

I’d tell myself to aim higher, stylistically, intellectually–in every way. Like so much fiction by beginners, mine felt like the writing of a person who just wasn’t working hard enough, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. If a sentence isn’t doing several jobs at once, it’s probably dead weight. I’ve heard that there’s only one rule with writing: never be boring. I like that, the writing needs to be fucking riveting, one way or another. I’d add that authenticity is very important–if you’re not writing about something that really matters to you, deeply matters to you, it’s probably going to feel a little trite.

No Country for Young Men: An Interview with Urban Waite

Sidestepping the industry circus and downplaying his own achievements, Urban Waite isn’t your typical thriller writer, and his debut, The Terror of Living, isn’t your typical crime novel, as Dan Coxon finds out. Portrait by Sean Hunter

Urban Waite portrait by Sean Hunter

Crossing into similar territory to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, The Terror of Living offers more than just plot twists and cliff-hangers–although there plenty of those. It also explores the lengths that people will go to when thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, and the unlikely heroism that can emerge from pain and suffering. If it’s starting to sound more like a literary novel than a genre thriller, that’s no coincidence–The Terror of Living is one of those rare books that transcends its genre with every page. Stephen King recently called it “one of those books you start at one in the afternoon and put down, winded, after midnight”.

Its author isn’t exactly what you’d expect, either. For a young man who’s written about organized crime, shootouts and extreme physical torture, Urban Waite is surprisingly laid back and amiable. You’d never guess that his calm, smiling exterior hides the gloomy depths that he sometimes reveals on the page. Currently living in Seattle, the setting for The Terror of Living, Waite has given the city–and the entire Pacific Northwest–a new voice for its dark places and hidden secrets.

Given that The Terror of Living is your debut, can you tell us a little about how you got to this point? What path led you to publication?

For about a third of my life I’ve been working to become a writer. I never thought it would turn out the way it has. I never thought I’d have a novel, or even a job that centred on putting words to paper. It was always just a hope, a sort of dream to aspire to. For the most part I really did think that my life would continue the way it had for so many years, working nights to pay my mortgage, while keeping up my hobby of writing during the day.

A few years ago that all changed. I’d been out of school for several years when things just started to click. The stories I wrote before heading off to work were starting to get picked up in small literary publications. As a result I started receiving summer fellowships, grants, and residencies, while the publications started to become larger and larger. All this attention soon led me to an agent. And while I was still so engrossed in publishing stories, I didn’t see that the opportunity to write a book had simply appeared as if from nowhere.

Perhaps that’s just how blinded I was at the time, not even able to see that everything I had been doing, publishing short stories, taking these fellowships and residencies, had led me to the perfect place. Where everything I needed to strike out, as an author, was right there in front of me. I never thought I’d publish a novel. The idea seemed too bold, but there it was in front of me, an opportunity to do just that.

Did you set out to write a crime thriller when you started The Terror of Living? Or did the characters lead you in that direction?

I started out with the character of Phil Hunt. At the time there was a lot I didn’t know about him that I wanted to know, while also there was a lot that I knew already. He was an ex con, released twenty years before, and in those twenty years he’d never really forgiven himself for the crimes he committed. In this way, as I was writing out his first few scenes, I was very much interested in trying to understand why a man like him was working such a ruinous living in order to get by.

Part of what I loved about writing Terror, was that as I went on I began to understand the characters better, the situations they inhabited and the circumstances that had brought them there. They opened up for me, revealing more and more as the pages went by. In this way, and with characters like these, I found much of what I was writing about did have to do with crime. Though I certainly didn’t intend to write a crime thriller, the characters began to lead me in that direction. The truth of it was that as I got deeper into the novel, the more I enjoyed what I was writing.

I know The Terror of Living has been published in several countries, and some seem to treat it as a genre crime novel, while others have given it a more literary treatment. How do you feel about the industry’s need to divide their ‘product’ into genres like this? Is there a point when a crime novel becomes so good that it transcends its genre, and becomes a literary work?

I really try not to pay much attention to things like this. I don’t really care all that much if my novels are placed in the genre category or the literary category. All I care about is if people will read them and, if they do, what their reactions to my work will be. I put my all into everything I do and I hope that comes across whether I’m waiting tables, writing books, or building a deck. Good writing is just good writing and it doesn’t matter what genre it comes in.

The Terror of Living

The title strikes me as interesting too. It perfectly conveys the thriller elements of the story, but at the same time it avoids the clichés, nursery rhymes and cheap puns of most crime fiction. Was this a conscious decision on your part?

Thanks for the compliment about the title. Sometimes I love it; sometimes I think I just went overboard. I don’t mean to throw myself under the bus here, but I also want to tell you that it was a very tough decision to go ahead with The Terror of Living as the title. At the time I had about 320 pages or so and I needed to present the manuscript to my agent. I didn’t have a title and I didn’t want to send him a nameless manuscript. While I felt the story and the characters within were well polished, I also felt I needed to present the novel in as finished a way as I possibly could.

The title, The Terror of Living, was a mix of a few things. It needed, at least for me, to be something that would link all the characters within. It needed to be strong and to infer the inherent danger of the lifestyles I was trying to convey. It also needed to be something that would catch the attention of a prospective reader, as the novel sat facing out at them from the shelf.

It was about a week or so before I was due to present the manuscript to my agent when by chance I happened to go to a poetry lecture. I was sitting in the audience listening as the speaker began to talk about the pain of the terminally ill, especially those that would die young. I listened, hanging on every word, wondering what I might have done in a similar situation. How I would react if someone were to tell me something like this, to give me the news that I would die of a disease that could not be averted. This moment haunted me for a time, and though I don’t like to dwell on it too much, it certainly stuck with me. Of course the thought that we all die is always there, it was the suddenness of that lecture and the ideas it stirred in me which truly led me to my title. Every character in The Terror of Living was running from that same inevitable problem. One we simply cannot outrun.

I want to ask you about your influences, as it seems that they’d be an unusual mix for someone who’s been published as a genre writer, but I don’t want to resort to the typical “which writers influenced you” question. So… which five people would you want to invite to a dinner party? Living or dead, writers or otherwise, the choice is yours.

I feel like I’m going to disappoint you on this one. I doubt very much there would be a single writer at this dinner party. The people I write about are not writers but people who usually are working some sort of blue-collar job, living pay check to pay check. Those are the types of people who influence what I write. And while I certainly learn a great deal from the books I read, I learn so much more from sitting back and having a conversation with someone about a subject I know nothing about.

I know you’ve been touring a lot with The Terror of Living. How daunting is this for a debut novelist? And how relevant is it in this age of blogging and online interviews?

Most of the promotional process I really don’t understand. There are authors who live for this sort of thing, for touring and shaking hands and telling jokes. Sometimes I wonder if those guys, the ones that almost seem like politicians, are even in the business of writing.

I guess what I mean to say is that I’m no socialite. I like having a beer every once in a while or telling some stories, but the whole business side of things is something I never even considered when writing Terror. The months leading up to publication and the touring that followed seemed more to me like work than anything I’d ever done before. It put me outside of what I was interested in, which in my case was writing.

I don’t mean to be so blunt about the business, but I do think that writers are artists and making art a commodity becomes tricky. It’s the reason why people like me have agents and publicists and people who know what they’re doing. Whose jobs centre on helping bungling shut-ins like myself get back to doing what we love.

To make a long answer short here, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing when it comes to touring, or blogging, or interviewing. I just try to make it up as I go along, and in that way it’s somewhat like writing. I’m just trying to make it up as I go, all the while hoping it all turns out okay.

Any crazy stories from your time on the road, promoting the book? Or has it all been cheap hotel rooms and early nights?

In Boston I worked in a restaurant waiting tables. I did it for five years and a few months after I left the restaurant went under. All of those people I worked with lost their jobs and a lot of them moved, some to other restaurants, some went back to school, or others still decided to go on and move into something else. Now, in every city I turn up in, there is an old friend I used to work with waiting to take me out for drinks, show me the city, and catch up.

A lot of them can’t believe this is what I do for a living now. Writing was always kind of a hobby, it was something I did with my alone time before I went to work. It wasn’t exactly who I was. I’d say it would be hard to define me by it. And so when I go to these cities on tour, I do my reading, I talk about books for a little, then I get back to life as I know it. A life where there aren’t readings or book discussions. There’s just a few old friends, a few drinks, and maybe some food. Pretty simple, but it seems to work out every time.

The Set: An Interview With Roger Ward

Vanessa Libertad Garcia interviews actor, author and pioneer of Australian gay culture about his novel The Set

Roger WardIn 1969, the Australian public would know Roger Ward’s face from TV shows like Skippy. Less than a year later, he would gain tabloid infamy thanks to Frank Brittain’s film based on his novel The Set. Originally a candid look at sexual revolution sweeping the country’s teens, the screenplay jettisoned much of the material to focus on the gay and lesbian aspects of the story. It became a sensation and a huge success. Ward later went on to appear in cult classics like Mad Max and has now published the full text of the novel

What were the defining staples of “the heady days of Australia’s sexual revolution”? How does The Set embody them?

The late 50s/early 60s was a time of abortion, unwanted pregnancy, and shotgun weddings. Where getting the birth control pill when it did arrive, meant a demeaning trip to one’s local doctor. It was a time when sex was never discussed in public and if a young man wished to buy a condom he went to a chemist or drug store, an experience that put them into a lather of perspiration. And even though the age of consent was 16, an unplanned pregnancy meant shame, humiliation, and estrangement from your family

I have tried to cover this humiliation, this shame, and have attempted to describe the terror felt by a teenager facing sex during the 50s and 60s. There was no birth control pill until 1961 and even then it was available only through prescription to married women and there was no words of wisdom or information from one’s parents; a situation that led to Tony’s inability to offer Carolyn a permanent and secure relationship and certainly no desire to go ‘all the way’ for neither one wanted pregnancy, a common fate during that time.

Common because the revolution had started.

It began through adventurous and oversexed teenagers such as the go getting Leah who was prepared to offer her body as a stepping stone to the top of her profession. By Louise, Paul’s first girl friend who was European and had an open mind toward all things sexual.

Sex was a constant with Peg, having been forced into wedlock at 16, she was frightened her daughter Carolyn may have inherited her genes, and her mind floated between a mother’s angst at her daughter enjoying the same pleasures of the flesh that she had at the same age and her dismay that she may be ‘doing it’ with Tony, the young man she also dreamt of seducing.

Later, because of his inability to rise to the occasion when he entered the trap she set, Peg feels free and at ease with the world because she now knows this callow youth could never initiate sex with her daughter. She moves on then to enjoy her more experienced partners.

Paul also experiments with sex, firstly with the provocative Louise and then with various men. His homosexual bent having come to the fore when the deed was forced upon him, but after overcoming the shock he enjoys the act and sets about procuring it.

Tony also disregards his initial fear and attempts to go ‘all the way’ with Carolyn but when her fear overcomes her desire, he drifts toward his latent interest in Paul.

I feel I have shown, in the attitude and actions of my characters, a gradual relaxation of the built in sexual fear, held by most, as the book moves from the late 50s into the early 60s.

Comparatively, how do the struggles of the GLBTQ community differ between Australia 1970 and Australia 2011?  What were the major struggles then and conversely, what are they now?

You’re talking 1970s because that was when the film was released. The film rights were actually sold in 1967 and the book that it was based upon was written in 1960 onward from notes and diaries created from 1954. So my observations were not from the 1970s but from the 50s through to the late 60s.

However I can still answer your question.

Historically the gay community has been hounded for an eternity. And a person of that persuasion was, at that time at least, considered to be some sort of freak, someone to be laughed at, to be ridiculed, derided, beaten up, ostracized, even put to death. And ironically, while I was in the French outpost of Tahiti writing the first pages of The Set, the National Assembly of France declared homosexuality a “social scourge” and urged the government to take action against it. Although a light did begin to glow at the end of the tunnel when in 1961, in a move possibly leading to the acceptance of my own material for film, a television station in San Francisco made and broadcast The Rejected – a documentary on homosexuals. So the change started to begin even then. It continued, in Australia and throughout the world to eventually cause the police department in New York City to change its policy of police entrapment of gay men, and rescinded its hiring practices designed to screen out gay people. And after the Stonewall riots in late June 1969 many within the emerging Gay Liberation movement in the US saw themselves as connected with the New Left rather than the established homophile groups of the time and the words “Gay Power” became a defiant answer to the rights-oriented homophile movement.

This power swept the world and those with homosexual tendencies began to gain a voice and threw off the cloak of shame that was traditionally worn and ‘came out’ as it were.

They were the true pioneers of the movement and have opened the flood gates of acceptance that have allowed the young people of today to kiss a same sex partner in the street, to hold hands, to cuddle in public, to hold highly esteemed positions in the corporate and public world and to marry their same sex partner. So, to my mind, the struggles of GLBTQ of today are minimal to what their forebears have been through.

The Set coverWhat were the risks you faced in releasing the film The Set in 1970? Is there any risk in releasing the novel version of The Set today? Do you anticipate any societal scrutiny or backlash?

I felt no risk when I sold the film rights because the book is of a sociological nature, covering every aspect of life, adventure, the seeking of a career, family relationships, social behaviour, heterosexuality, nymphomania, older woman attracted to a younger man, and of course… homosexuality. It was only when the producer indicated the book was too large to be filmed in its entirety and that he would have to cut it that I had reservations. And it was not because of the demand, “I want you to lift every homosexual reference from the book and write a screen play on that”. It was the fact that my baby, the book I had spent almost ten years creating was to be cut to the bone. That my years of work would be relegated to a 130-page script, that was the thing what worried me. I was worried further when, upon arriving on set for the first day of filming, I discovered that the script that I had diligently written had been re-written and toyed with by not only the producer, but by his 24-year-old third wife and also Elizabeth Kata who had written the book A Patch of Blue. I was devastated to see the ruination of a previously polished and highly tuned script and spent my short time on set leaping in front of the camera’s yelling, “Cut! That is not the dialogue”. It got to the stage that the actors were ignoring the director and coming to me in a clandestine manner to ask for interpretations and the correct lines to say. Understandably the director was angered by this and I was packed up and sent out of town on a phony publicity tour so a lot of the film went through without my input or salvaging and ended up in what I thought at the time was a ‘cringeworthy state’. So the risks I faced at that time, and they were real risks and they did eventuate, was one of being a laughing stock, of being embarrassed for creating such a badly written script.

Understandably, but in a way, viciously, the film was slaughtered by the press. Although thankfully, and through the loads of publicity we had received during the making of the film, the general public were keen to see it and it became one of the highest earning Australian films of that time. Ironically, it has now become a cult film and enjoys Film Festival Showings through out the world to hand clapping and cheering young gays.

I now look forward to redeeming myself with the book. I certainly do not fear any backlash and would in fact welcome it if it came because the book is a true diary of the 50s and 60s, written at that time with the thought processes and mentality of one who lived them. So the only scrutiny I may receive will be from the ‘Literary Set’ who may think my raw descriptions of sexual intercourse, particularly the male-on-male and the female-on-female, although delicately done, may be pushing the boundaries. But I wrote the book to entertain, to inform and to illuminate. And I used the thread of both homosexuality and of the life saving movement, although poles apart in terms of subject matter, as a manner of education. Only a few know of the intricacies of the homosexual mind or of what they do behind closed doors, and only a few know of the fears and the dangers faced by the Australian Surf Life Saver and having had experience, either practical or by observation and research of both, I used them as a thread for the narration of the book.

I am pleased too, to have waited this long to publish, for had I taken the poorly paid offers to do so during the 70s, the book would have gone out as a contemporary novel. Now it is released as an historical, true diary of the 60s and gives an insight to the young readers of today how youth lived in that day, and to those of my own age, it will bring back so many memories of the way we lived and of what we thought.

What affect do you believe the film The Set has had on Australian GLBTQ culture? What affect do you believe the novel The Set will have on today’s Australian GLBTQ culture?

I know the film liberated a lot of young men, particularly when it was released. I know because I receive letters and emails even to this day from people who are now established businessmen, and even one from a New York lawyer, who thank me for allowing them to know that their feelings and instinct was not abnormal and that there were others out there like them. The film, they tell me, was a release, an opening of a door to lead a liberated life.

And in these later years, I notice young girls are coming to view the film as well, even though there is only a fleeting reference to lesbianism in the film they cheer and clap every time it is mentioned. They tell me, after the showing, that they absolutely love the film. So it has given many young men and possibly a few girls, a look at the sort of life they previously only fantasized about. It has given them the courage to come out of their shells and seek what they want. During these later screenings, I’m talking from 2000 onward, both males and females come to me to express their dismay at the manner the homosexuals of the day were treated.

The film has also been used as research by Ricardo Peach for his thesis that gained him his Doctor of Philosophy. Ricardo compared the homosexual life in Australia to that of their counterparts in Africa and commented that The Set was the first film to depict homosexuals as everyday people with regular jobs and an accepted appearance without the usual mincing outrageousness usually depicted.

And a Harley Street Psychiatrist asked to view the The Set by a censorship body in the UK came back with the reply, “Normal people acting in a normal manner”.

The book, on the other hand, can be enjoyed by all. It is not, I hasten to add, a gay and lesbian work. Although, I am happy to note that the gay and lesbian brigade in both the UK and Australia have taken it on as their own. It is also a general read for everyone who enjoys a page-turning yarn. Although I do surmise the younger generation of gays who now roam freely and without fear of prosecution or violence, will be appalled by the treatment of homosexuals in the book and of the clandestine efforts they resort to in an effort to protect themselves.

I really want the book of The Set to be taken as a work of entertainment, not as a drum-beating Gay Liberation scribe but, on the other hand, I want the gay reader to enjoy the work and to revel in the fact that their gender is being used as an everyday part of life, which it is, and has been, since man began.

What do you mean by: “The big screen adaptation of The Set could only ever hope to be a shadow of the real story”? In what ways does the novel adaptation expand on the real story that the film version could not?

No film, adapted from a large novel, can ever depict that story as the writer envisaged it. Disregarding the budget, no film can realistically be longer than two hours and it is obvious that if one squeezes a 500-page novel into a 150-page script, something has to give. And surmising we could do a 500-page script and shoot it as well (we’re getting into the mini series here), the thought processes, and the innuendos described by the author for his characters cannot be depicted on the screen, perhaps the actor may try to convey it, but it is not the same as having it spelt out in black and white print. But having said that, I do want the film to be remade and by God I’m having offers coming out of the woodwork, but this time I am being ultra careful as I will not allow the film to be made with the same embarrassment I experienced in 1970. As I mentioned before, I am leaning closer to doing a mini series because I do wish to cover every aspect of the content that is explored in the book.

You’re celebrated for playing ‘tough guys’ in action films such as Mad Max – acting work that has inspired Quentin Tarantino to call you “a legend”.  Ironically, most of your films appeal to a predominantly heterosexual male demographic. Has being an ‘out’ gay male actor made it difficult for you to land these roles? What bearing has your homosexuality had on your acting career?

The procurement of my acting work has always been based on my appearance and my ability to do the job. Fortunately I started acting at a very young age and because no matter what one does, be it cooking, needle work, performing operations, or pulling teeth, one is surely going to improve with experience, so by the time television came to Australia and with it the feature film, I had cut my teeth on stage work from the age of twelve, standup comedy from 14, educational radio drama from 16 and interspersed this with training from an off-shoot of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, weight training and martial arts. So by the time I was asked to audition for film and television, I was highly trained and experienced.

One’s sexual preference should not affect his ability to play the role he is offered. After all, gay or not, one is first and foremost an actor. And, in my own case, I have now performed in more than 80 feature films and over 2000 television roles, plus probably 50 stage plays in which I have played the gamut of hero, monster, womanizer, drag queen, boxer, wrestler, incestuous father, stroke victim, truck drivers, policemen, cowboys, bikers, and a serial killer. I have performed comedy, horror, drama and Shakespeare and never once was my sexual preference ever raised.

What do you say to other ‘tough guy’ gay actors who are contemplating staying in the closet to ‘protect’ their acting careers?

That has never been a problem in Australia, although I do believe it is an issue, or at least it was during the 50s and 60s and into the 70s in America. And I know of a number of actors over there who were forced to hide their preference during that time. Although I do believe it doesn’t matter now. Homosexuality is widely accepted in the streets, in the home by fellow family members and by big business, so why shouldn’t it be accepted in the world of make belief. In fact it appears to be a trend and a social high if one, particularly in the entertainment world, is supposedly gay.

There are a lot of tough guys out there, some in the film business others in areas of entertainment such as wrestling, boxing, martial arts, football, who happen to be gay so a sexual preference “does not maketh the man”. So I have no comment to make to anyone who wishes to hide their sexual preference, actors or not. I do remember though, when I first came to Sydney from my home town of Adelaide to break into the ‘big time’ and was called to see a well known producer. He greeted me warmly enough but after he had eyed up my rather attractive female companion whom I had chosen to take with me, he commented, “I do admire you Mister Ward, coming here, as a man, to try and break into films”.

So maybe being gay may have well been the way to go.

But I did pretty well anyway. Eighty films, 2000 television shows… That producer by the way, I think he’s forgotten it was me that he insulted that morning, because he’s now one of my biggest fans and a constant employer.

Do you plan on writing any other GLBTQ-focused films and/or novels? What projects are next on the horizon for Roger Ward?

Yes, I am working on a sequel to The Set, it will revolve around the five protagonists again but this time they’ll be in their 20s and it will be set in the USA, based around the film world.

I also have a trilogy based on two brothers who are war correspondents, and right now I’m looking for a suitable publisher or agent. They contain high action, romance and comedy. The first of them opens in Iraq and moves to New Zealand. While the second features New Zealand and Tahiti, and the third is set in New York and Iraq.

My other writing credits, films, documentaries, mini-series and TV specials are little known, hidden as they have been behind a pseudonym, as it was discovered long ago that despite the establishment not objecting to a gay actor playing the heavy, they did draw the line when that same actor dared to write a novel or film.

So I’m coming out now!

The book of The Set is now available in book shops throughout the UK and Australia and can be purchased from Amazon. It is also available as an ebook.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm0oKmv1w5c

Gerald Locklin: An Interview

Gerald Locklin has, in his lengthy career, alternately been called a “people’s writer”, a “stand-up poet” (co-credited for coining the term) and, by his friend and contemporary, Charles Bukowski: “one of the great undiscovered talents of our time”. In a fascinating interview, Declan Tan hears about the influence of comic books, the giants of modernism and Lady Gaga.

Gerald Lockin book coverLocklin has somehow managed however, in his mountains of work, to remain indefinable, as his famed “alter ego” Jimmy Abbey observes in his latest collection (The Vampires Saved Civilisation): “it’s a constant struggle, against others and oneself, to remain undefined”.

Through his sheer prolificacy in the small presses since the 60s, working both as a teacher at California State University and of course as a writer, Locklin has influenced many, publishing more than 4,000 poems (catalogued here) along with over 125 books, a feat that would defy the most ardent of collectors.

He has worked in every genre, regularly putting out novels, novellas, short stories, essays, journalism and interviews, tackling all manner of subjects in his signature style, speaking directly in an unpretentious and seemingly casual, exact language.

Lisa Glatt (A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, The Apple’s Bruise), fellow writer and former student of Locklin’s, and now also a teaching colleague in Long Beach, says: “The main thing I remember Gerry telling me was ‘Don’t think too much!’” And though I’ve forced him here to think about ‘writing’, perhaps more so than he would have liked, he has still managed somehow to remain undefined, and an ever-expanding library unto himself.

How do you think comic books have influenced writers, like yourself, reading them when growing up? Is it a kind of first step into reading before becoming a writer? And is it the same with detective novels?

I can only speak for myself. My mother, who was an elementary school teacher, and a very good and enlightened one, taught me to read before I started kindergarten. At first she read books to me, two books a night, one of my selection and one of hers. After I could read to myself, she would let me purchase two comic books at a time: one of my choosing and one from the old Classics Illustrated series. Of the former category, I liked best the ones one might expect, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern, Donald Duck, and such. But I immediately took to the Classics as well, voraciously, which allowed me a cultural literacy long before I ever read the actual books – although I, of course, did read all of them in good time.

My mother convinced the nuns to let me into the local parish school when I was four-and-a-half, which was no problem because I had been so well prepared for it by her. I’d breeze through the readers in a few minutes after which the nun would have to find me something else to read or do for the weeks the rest of the class was on the text, and when I was simply faced with boredom, I filled the time with daydreams of being able to fly like Superman.

My father, by the way, was serving in the boiler room of a destroyer escort in the South Pacific during this time, since I was born in 1941, and he did not return except for brief leaves until 1945. After my mother had returned to the classroom, I had a caretaker, an older woman, until kindergarten – there were no pre-schools in those days – so my early entry into kindergarten was also geared to save my mother considerable expense – not that the Catholic schools were free.

As a teacher she would also have known that the Catholic schools were significantly superior to the public (in the American sense) schools, not only because of the dedication of the sisters, but because of the strict discipline – any truly disruptive students were quickly dispatched for the public schools to deal with. There was the occasional private school also (what you would call a public school over there) but few Catholics could afford those, and I doubt they were as good as the parish schools.

The Church served the sociopolitical purposes of the generation of immigrants from Ireland, just as “Negro” churches were doing the same for their members. And the division was not between black and white, but among the different nationalities – Irish, Italian, Polish, German – that dominated one or another of the parishes.

Integration did not really get underway until the 1950s. When a black fighter fought Rocky Marciano, I rooted for the black fighter, not because I had much experience, good or bad, of blacks, but because I didn’t: it was the Italians I mainly had to deal with on the way home or at the playground. And the Irish themselves, of course.

At any rate, I think I simply grew seamlessly out of comic books and into books. I did get my one strong incentive towards writing fiction from the movie and comic book of Bambi – I was so distraught by the death of Bambi that I vowed to become a writer and only write books that had less tragic endings. By then I had already been launched as a poet not only by the poems my mother read to me but by my Aunt Pat, who, when I stayed overnight with my aunts, would stand me up on the bed, direct me to gaze upon the night sky, and instruct me to compose a poem about it. The poems may have been of the ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, variety, but she dutifully copied them down and archived them and from that early, pre-literary age, I took it for granted that I was a writer and would always be one, no matter what I might also aspire to. Because I wrote well in school, I also had that reinforcement from my teachers at all stages in my education. And in high school and college, the former taught by Jesuits, I had five years of Latin, four of Greek, four of French. In graduate school: reading German, and numerous courses in Old and Middle English language and literature.

My mother’s father had come from Ireland, fathered 14 children, and died at the age of 50, shortly before I was born. Of those 14 siblings, of which my mother was the youngest, none except her ever had a child. I was, in other words, the only member of the next generation, and all my surviving maternal aunts and uncles (four or five died during the flu epidemic of 1918, and another, after whom I am named, of tuberculosis) were my aunts and uncles exclusively. Few of them ever married. The ones who lived into middle age lived into old age as well – their 80s and 90s.

My father returned from the war with Type One diabetes and died at the age of 50 of a diabetic-related heart attack a week before my graduation from high school. He was a very good father, and I loved him very much, and it has only been later in life that I’ve realized the influence his death had upon my later life: the friends that, unbeknownst to them, filled successive roles of surrogate father for me.

My father had made the promise that I could be raised Catholic – his own father was Methodist – and he took the further step of becoming involved in all my youthful activities – which got me through cub scouts, for instance, because he could do just about anything, whereas I could do nothing of any useful nature except academics and athletics. I was encouraged in both by mother and father alike, and excelled in both. But I couldn’t change a light bulb and still can’t. And I’m technophobic and never took typing.

I have written many poems about the above, both fiction and poetry: Go West, Young Toad; New Orleans, Chicago, and Points Elsewhere; and any of my early experimental novellas, are good places to look for such materials, although all are fictionalized, as are all human memories and utterances.

As for detective novels, I did read those of the juvenile variety, which frequently involve the solving of crimes and outwitting of criminals, but radio and film were probably stronger influences. I read a lot of crime novels today, for the wit of the British ones and the maleness of the American ones. Where else in English can a male of a traditional sort find characters with which to identify in fiction of the last 50 years? I love to read of Inspector Morse, Dave Robicheaux, and Matthew Scudder. I also love Helen Mirren, Iris Murdoch, and A.S. Byatt – and P.D. James – but a lad does need his infusion of literary testosterone now and then.

I’ve never taken to “serial graphics” by the way – as much as I love dialogue – to read and to write – print is easier on my eyes. The only comic strip I still read faithfully is Pearls Before Swine. Do you get it over the there?

I’ll have to have a look.

Pearls Before Swine is truly pretty funny and sustains one’s illusion of sanity when confronted by the realities of Human Nature.

Gerald Lockin book coverI read something you said in an interview you held with Rain Dog about “sacrifice of the ego”. How does the “sacrifice of ego” free a reader, or an audience as a whole, as well as a writer? Does it mean that the reader must accept what he/she is reading rather than rejecting it on grounds of previous education or taste?

Did I use the term “sacrifice of ego”?

Here is the quote: “And we really need appreciative readers more than we do more poets, but that requires a sacrifice of ego which few are willing to make (and which many no doubt feel that I should be the first to make)”. I am wondering now if the phrase is somehow related to Jung?

No, there was nothing profound in my use of it. Just that a certain charisma attaches itself to the image of the poet – or would-be ones assume that, at least, and are thus reluctant to relegate themselves to the less glamorous roles of reader, critic, scholar, reviewer, editor, teacher, etc., as important as those literary jobs may be, more so, in fact, than a large percentage of the poets – now that the writing of poetry requires so little aptitude, skill, practice, education, etc., although work of any permanent value will always require quite a few of those items.

I read widely in Freud, Jung, and other psychoanalysts at one time – especially when writing my dissertation of Nathanael West – but, no, I doubt they snuck into my use of that phrase.

You’re a long-time follower of the Lakers and the Yankees. What function do sports play in your life? As a supporter of a team I find myself questioning the reason why I support them, as if it is some arbitrary selection my ego must stand by at all costs (a refusal to sacrifice the ego).

I’ve published many sports poems. And I’ve stated often that my participation in sports as a youth saved my sense of self-worth in adolescence – when I was afflicted by acne that rivaled Bukowski’s – and saved my life, to some extent during my 30 years of heavy drinking, and even more so when I gave up drinking in order to lose over a hundred pounds in the wake of pulmonary emboli at the age of 52, and found a substitute for alcohol in the endorphins released by swimming (though badly), lifting weights (as I had from an early age), and occasional long walks.

My main point, though, is that athletic competition teaches you that you can always do more than you think you can – in any aspect of life, literary and academic even: I am, for instance, a very prolific writer. When I need to write fast, I can. And I knew I could quit alcohol when I had to, without going to any 12-step program or ever proclaiming myself an alcoholic. What does that term even mean? All such categories are designed to control us, pigeonhole us, keep us from being as independent-minded as we can be and should be. To humble us. Humility is a good thing, but humiliation isn’t. Self-confidence is.

You mention rooting for the black fighter against Rocky Marciano: Now, this may seem unrelated, but did/do you feel some duty to root for the underdog, and not just in sports? I’m not sure what it’s like in America with this sort of thing, but the British (and Irish) for example, always seem to take pleasure in supporting the underdog.

I would have rooted for Rocky Marciano because of his excellence if it weren’t for the Irish-Italian neighborhood rivalries of those days. Later, my best friends in high school, college and as teaching colleagues were Italian, and I consequently read voraciously in the Italian novels of Pavese, Vittorini, Moravia, Verga, Manzoni, all of them. I rooted against the Russians during the Cold War Olympics, but that didn’t deter my reading of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and the rest.

I root for some teams in solidarity with my kids. I root for the USA when we’re the favorite and when we’re the underdog. I become very chauvinistically American when my country is attacked abroad. But when the USA is not involved, I root for whatever place I’m visiting. Sometimes I do root for an underdog mainly for that reason, but I also hate to see a legend grow old and over the hill. So I often root for an “over-the-hill gang,” all the more so now that I identify with the aging gunfighter (though I’ve never fired a round of live ammunition in my life). My great film hero was and still is Shane – I’ve watched the movie more than any other. I’m an only child and according to psychologists who place an emphasis on the role of Birth Order, the only child, even more than the first-born, hates to see a king dethroned, or any kind of radical change.

I have my liberal sympathies, inculcated by an educated schoolteacher mother who was of an ‘enlightened’ bent way ahead of her time, but I’m not fond of the extremes to the left or right. Of course, one person’s extreme is another person’s mainstream. I’m a registered Democrat but more of an Independent, in fact, and I wish the Democratic Party had remained more libertarian and individualistic, and less socialistic and Orwellian.

A lot of my foreign policy is based on my experiences of human nature in the bars. I learned, for instance, that the person who is willing to fight is less apt to have to. I think that goes for countries as well. The more pacifistic the American public has become, the more wars we find ourselves fighting. I’ve taught courses in contemporary literary theory, but that doesn’t mean I swallow it whole – most of it derives from Marx, and I’ve seen the Marxist countries fail.

It’s assumed that one grows more conservative as one ages because one has more money, and it’s true that one hates to have one’s earned savings eroded by confiscatory policies, but it’s also because one has seen so many sociopolitical, psychological, and pedagogical theories fail in the course of one’s lifetime. Look at all the ‘growing-up’ in terms of political realities that Obama has had to do in just two-plus years. I’m glad he has moved closer to the center. I was never fooled by all his rhetoric anyway. The real racists were not those who voted against him because McCain was a much better prepared candidate for the office of the presidency, but those who voted for Obama only because he was black and because he told them everything they wanted to hear.

He’s been a quick learner – I have to give him that – but I’m afraid he’ll revert to his old ideological ways if he ever re-gains the electoral power of his first two years. I would have loved to have had a Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice to vote for, especially the latter. And I much preferred Bill Clinton to Hillary, and I don’t give a damn how many blow-jobs he got in the White House.

I don’t usually discuss my political opinions because some people will just use them as an excuse not to have to read a writer’s work, to feel superior to it because the author’s opinions are, in their view, so barbaric. Almost all the great moderns held political views that are unfashionable today. And it’s a lot of work to read them. So those views are great excuses not to invest the effort that an Eliot or a Pound or a Joyce demands, and that their work repays.

The Four Quartets is profoundly beautiful verbal-intellectual music, no matter what one thinks of God, royalty, or the House of Lords. And ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ explained intertextualism decades before the term was coined. I’m not a fascist, far from it, but I don’t dismiss great artists as “elitist” either.

That’s about all I have to say on those matters, though. I don’t politicize my teaching or my friendships. And I tell my students they can probably reach more readers and accomplish more with a well-written letter to the editor than with a sloganeering poetic rant. But they’re free to follow their own literary instincts. I don’t teach them what to write, but how not to write poorly.

Gerald Lockin book coverDo sports teach something to a writer, as a participant or a spectator?

Sports teach us that competition is not a bad thing. Feminists prefer cooperation, and it is a necessary component, but neither America nor the western democracies have been better off since they became less competitive internationally. And most of us know that committees are far less effective in making decisions than are strong, confident, decisive leaders – those, at least, who are committed to making the best choices for their constituents. Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill, not Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, nor, it would seem, Saddam or Gaddafi.

The best editors and publishers I’ve had were individuals. As for committees, judge by the recipients of literary awards, and the advanced age at which those most worthy of recognition are finally accorded it. I think the feminists prefer committees because they’re good at dominating them. Whereas the women who have risen to leading nations have all emulated male decisiveness.

There are, or course, exceptions to every generalization. Please remember that you’re asking me to attempt generalizations. I’m doing my best to do so provisionally.

Are sports another release of tension, like drugs or writing or anything else? Or is it much less serious than that? Why do you support ‘a team’?

I choose my teams or individuals for a variety of reasons, I think, most of them fairly common and superficial: I root for the Lakers because they’re a Los Angeles team and I’ve lived here since 1964, whereas I rooted for the Rochester Royals when I was a kid, because I was living in Rochester. I was convinced to favour the Yankees not so much because I lived in New York State – Rochester is 350 miles from NYC – but because a young, athletic priest upon whom I based one of my novellas convinced me that it made much more sense to root for a team that never lost than for one of the many that seldom won. And the Yankees, with their storied tradition, have given me years of pleasure as a result of that – especially, though, in my 1950s adolescence when Mickey Mantle (my great hero), Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and other colorful all-time all-stars were comprising their roster. I’ve rooted for the athletic teams of the universities I’ve attended and the ones I’ve taught at.

Furthermore, I enjoy watching sports and rooting for teams, although not as much as I enjoyed playing them – God, I wish I could still compete at basketball. I’m not as fanatical a fan as I once was, but I’m loyal to the Lakers and the Yankees, because they are a part of my personal history, and, more importantly, because rooting for a team is fun… a pleasure… which, as Coleridge understood, is the best reason for reading or writing poetry also.

There is also the camaraderie that sports provide, and the sense of continuity with our own earlier selves. Nor is that camaraderie homo-erotic. Trust me: there is no sexual pleasure – even of a cryptic variety – in slapping a teammate on the hip-pads – which are composed of a very hard and un-phallic plastic.

Heterosexuals have many faults – which have been amply enumerated by others, but a frequent though not universal gay weakness resides in the need to assert that everyone else is in some way or other gay also. In truth, the closets of the world are simply not that capacious. If diversity is a value, doesn’t that include heterosexuality as well?

What you say about sports relating us to our personal histories I find particularly interesting; is it the same with literature and your own writing?

My own writing is postmodernist, but my literary heroes are moderns: Yeats, Thomas, Auden, Hopkins, Hemingway, Faulkner, Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Greene, Waugh, Frost, Eliot, Pound, Robinson, Stevens, both Cranes, W. C. Williams, Cummings, Jeffers, etc.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed reading my contemporaries – hundreds of them, especially the novelists – I’ve read them all and taught 20th-Century British Lit and 20th-Century American Lit and Contemporary Literature at both the graduate and undergraduate levels for my entire career. I love Beckett, Byatt, Kureishi, Naipaul, Murdoch, Spark, Doyle, Roth, Mailer, Updike, Malamud, etc. all of them. That’s not even touching on the writers in translation, and the films of the New Wave that I was weaned on in the late 1950s and early 1960s or the earlier ones of the Angry Young Men. I saw them all… we all did… “we” meaning the students and writers of my generation. I side with the Modernists in their Aestheticism. I don’t believe in reducing art to a servant of society. I believe any demands outside of the aesthetic are secondary to it, and should be used for it, not catered to by it.

I know that’s not fashionable. So what?

Do you find yourself taking a dislike now to things you once enjoyed, perhaps a book or a writer or piece of music, perhaps? Or maybe the reverse, that you take a liking to something that once seemed unpleasant or simply bad?

I pretty much enjoy the same works I enjoyed the first time around. And new ones all the time. I don’t re-read many books. There are too many new ones. And my writing takes more time from my reading all the time.

Money has never influenced my writing significantly because I’ve never made significant money with my writing. I haven’t come even close to earning with my writing what I have for my teaching. Of course the writing contributed to promotions, travel, and such, but I never wrote anything for extrinsic motives that I wouldn’t have for its intrinsic worth anyway. I wouldn’t even have been any good at it.

Maybe literary wealth awaits me – though I greatly doubt it. But even if it did, to paraphrase Bukowski, it would be arriving too late to harm me much.

I’d use some of it to get back to Britain, Ireland, and Europe, though.

Gerald Lockin book coverYou’ve travelled quite a bit, also spending some time in the UK. What do you think differs in American and British appreciation of the arts?

I wouldn’t want to belabor our differences, because we are obviously more alike than different. We love your comedies. We admire your verbal genius. I tell people that you don’t raise children who can’t write over there; you put them out on the passing ice floes.

You seem to enjoy us most when we are least like you: a Bukowski, for instance. Or a Fred Voss – good friend of mine – who writes poetry out of building airplanes.

Your present is more rooted in your past than ours, but you have a longer history and less immigration. You have done a wonderful job of preserving much less green land, whereas we have a tendency to squander our resources and our talents.

Your schools emulate ours, which is a tragic error. You are a little lacking in confidence at times, whereas we are cocky to the point of obnoxiousness. (In some of these things, the Irish may resemble us more than they do the Brits.)

You are more aware of class than we are – and I do think there is more opportunity for upward mobility over here still – though it may be endangered by our fiscal indebtedness.

I spent a semester on a teaching exchange to the University College of North Wales at Bangor. We (my wife and two young children and I) lived in Menai Bridge, with one of the most beautiful views that side of Big Sur, California. My wife loved it so much it may have spoiled California for her.

I’ve traveled about on various trips giving readings. We had a car during the teaching exchange but it was not very reliable. We had a good rental car for a month a few years later.

We’ve stayed in a lot of bed and breakfasts. We’ve been to most parts of England, a few days in Scotland, a couple of weeks in Dublin and Galway. I spent two-and-a-half months in England while on Sabbatical in spring 1980, mostly in London, with ten days in Paris.

We’ve spent significant time there and other places on the continent. To paraphrase Hanif Kureishi, London just about effing killed me, but those were my heaviest drinking days, and I was lonely for too many weeks.

I was first in England in, I think, 1971, early summer and late; again for five weeks in 1972; back for two weeks of readings while staying with John Mowat and his family in Hull in, I think, 1987; back for Wales, London, Dorset, and all over in 1989; five weeks in 1992, but having had a deep vein thrombosis getting on the Piccadilly line at Heathrow; a few days each in Dorset and London in 1997 (or 1998) and 1999 to participate in the Dorset Literary Festival for Dave Caddy’s Tears in the Fence magazine.

Many poems and stories in that, and many poems in Ambit and elsewhere and on Ragged Edge, Keith Dersley’s online mag and press. A play I co-authored, The Toad Poems, played for a week in Camden Town early last summer, directed by Donita Beeman, but I didn’t get over there for it. I hope it’s revived again soon.

Is good writing more than many different people saying largely the same thing, just in a different way? Is it a natural progression then that things get a bit more money-oriented in this environment of writing, where it becomes a kind of trickery to say the same thing in a new way? Does it need to be more?

There are almost infinite and unpredictable ways in which writing can be good, but finite ways in which it can be really bad. I’m not a terribly judgmental person in any arena except, I suppose, sports. And there are people who are simply assholes. But they generally elicit a certain sympathy from me, maybe because my wife considers me such a consummate asshole myself.

Is there a kind of writer that you don’t respect?

Any writer who manages to stick with it deserves a certain amount of respect. But who am I to presume any other writer needs or desires my respect anyway. I spend much more time doing things – writing included, of course – than I do thinking in the abstract about them. Entertaining abstract controversies that inhibit or restrict a writer’s writing is not my nature. The same for teaching. I like to get things done, and I like to have fun doing them, or afterwards at least. People waste a lot of time on matters that are just pure bullshit. Action cuts through the theoretical shit.

Do you think self-taught poets/writers somehow differ with students of the arts? What can each offer?

Ultimately we’re all self-taught because we can always accept or reject what our teachers teach us. I just try to help my students in any way I can, mainly by telling them what my own experiences have taught me. And to facilitate their learning from each other, from their reading, etc.

I also teach them some things about the techniques of poetry and fiction that would take longer for them to learn on their own. And to point them towards reading works they may enjoy and which may serve as models or stretch their minds. And their own works serve as models for and inspirations to each other. I emphasize positive reinforcement. I tell them to increase their vocabularies and to expand their syntactical arsenal. Most of the time the principles of good prose apply to poetry also.

I also try to get them to write more prolifically and to open their minds to the vastness of subject matter in the world and in themselves. To break through our self-imposed assumptions. Right now at the end of the semester, when I see some good poems I urge the writers of them to submit them to periodicals, and I show them how and I tell them to tell their editors that I urged them to do so. Once they start publishing their work and reading it publicly, they’ll find they can go forward with a new confidence. Success breeds success (as someone more concise than I once said).

So do you think it’s important for your students to get published? I mean, the main concern must be writing something worthwhile, or new, but is it then about having people read it? I presume it is.

I never require that any of my students seek publication. But many are grateful for me giving them the benefit of my 50-plus years of experience with manuscript submissions – and I allow them to say I urged them to submit their work, and I tell them what magazines I am publishing in regularly, and I tell them not to hesitate to say that I urged them to submit their work to these mags that do at least know something of my own work. Without this help from me, most of them would be paralyzed by ignorance of and fear of the submission procedures. They wouldn’t know where to start; they’d be afraid to embarrass themselves, etc. I just give them the confidence to make these first attempts at publication. When they succeed, they gain tremendous confidence, and their writing generally is strengthened by that. And even though the editors who read their work will range from experienced to novices, they will at least be more objective than the students’ friends will be. The “market place”, even for the little mags and small presses, is a more valuable immersion in the literary world than are the endless series of “literary sewing circles” out of which many writers never escape. They become addicted to these captive audiences.

You know the statistics show that most graduates even of MFA programs stop writing shortly after graduation. Having to earn a living is part of it – it often leaves no time for writing. And when you don’t write regularly or ever get any success experiences, you lose confidence in your abilities.

So I try to help them get actually involved in the world of publishing IF they want to.

And I try to teach them everything I know in my creative writing classes, because I know very few of them will continue writing for very long – or will just “write for themselves,” consigning their work to boxes or drawers… forever!

They can learn a lot besides how to write poetry or stories in these classes – about literature, about society, about what and how to read, about how to get along with others, or how to retain your individuality under social pressures, about themselves – their repressed lives… I’m glad my degree was in literature not creative writing, but today with the politicization of literary study, it is less useful for a writer. At least in creative writing they learn the nuts and bolts of writing.

With the explosion of online journals in recent years, how do you view this fanning out of writing/writers, put into boxes and published in niche publications, where the readers and editors keep everything within the same style and limits? Is that a problem? As people on the Internet tend to read or look at things they are familiar with or ‘like’, is there less of a chance for someone to encounter something new unexpectedly?

The good side is that writers can get their work into at least this form of ‘print’ who might never have been able to break into print in the past. There are fewer dictators of taste and such… and when I started publishing, there were very few mags and thus the editors of the ones that did exist were very powerful. And I managed to step on almost every one of their toes: at APR, Esquire, The New Yorker, Poetry, etc. – it’s amazing how many shit lists I got on in spite of my existing in obscurity. And those editors never died!!! I got on The Shit Lists of The Immortals. So I was very grateful for the emergence of so many new magazines, some of them with brilliantly independent editors such as Marvin Malone at The Wormwood Review.

The downside of course is that there is so much more work out there that the wheat can get lost in the chaff. And I think there has been an overall decline of ‘taste’ as a result of that, and of performance poetry, of self-publishing, etc. But somehow the cream does seem to rise if not to the top than not too far from it. And sometimes that happens faster; and sometime more slowly. But a writer has to have faith that somehow it does eventually happen.

I’ve fought against joining the cybernetic world, but, ironically, the friends who have dragged me clawing and screaming onto the Net seem to have done me an enormous favor. I seem to have somehow achieved some modicum of a reputation in the last couple of years. And at the young age of 70!!!

Gerald Lockin book coverWith the web journals it seems (probably only from the ones I am reading) that a lot of writing is concerned with throw-away observation (like the worst of comedy) or a ‘timely’ aspect (like in journalism) and aimed more and more at a temporary effect. Nothing seems timeless from what I read. It becomes more of a titillation, an entertainment (my writing included, unfortunately). This is maybe the result of so much writing published all of the time that stories/poetry must have this ‘angle’ that is for a moment refreshing, but cannot be sustained. But perhaps things were only ‘timeless’ when there was not as much of it being written.

You’re no doubt onto something, though the trivialities you note may have been endemic to postmodernism itself. The modernists were such giants. I guess after WWII the whole literary world craved a bit of a rest – which has turned into a 70-year snooze.

Postmodernism contributed self-reflexivity, but the modernists were anticipating even that, and the modernists dramatized subjectivity and relativity, whereas the postmodernists took them to absurd extremes: to the extent that they mainstreamed the marginal, and marginalized the mainstream, though the marginalized themselves naturally rejoice at that.

I just finished re-reading Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, and having read it (too hastily) and taught it when it first came out. This time I was in awe of it. Talk about a giant. And last night I saw Woody Allen’s Moonlight in Paris, which is a wonderful film, only flawed (for me) by his jejune and stereotypically uninformed parody of Hemingway – when he first comes on screen, that is – gradually his greatness begins to emerge in spite of the filmmaker’s intentions.

I defend Woody Allen’s films, because he’s been an obvious victim of simpleminded feminist and puritan hostilities. But the film is pure parody of the Giants of the 20s, so as funny and engaging and appealing as it is (and God, the women are beautiful!), it makes one aware of how less a giant the parodist is, than are the giants he is caricaturing.

Parody was really the name of the game for the intertextualizing postmodernists, myself included. I’m glad I wrote in so many styles and moods that not all of my work is guilty of it.

I think a lot of people who haven’t liked [Woody Allen’s] recent films will find Midnight very hard to resist, as romance, as nostalgia, as fairly gentle parody. I’m one of them, but I also saw it in a romantic mood in romantic company, and I’ve long been a sucker for the 20s, like most of my literary generation. I’m guessing that for younger generations the 60s might fill that bill. Then again, with their flattening of history, and the pedagogical ‘privileging’ of the synchronic/ahistorical viewpoint over the diachronic/historical one, they may not even be aware that there were decades before their own.

Earlier in your career, did you ever feel as if you were following any writer in particular, as some writers have (becoming heavily influenced or obsessed by certain predecessors), before finding your own honesty/originality? Or did it come naturally?

There’s no question that I was influenced greatly by Edward Field first, in the 1960s, and a little later in the 1960s by Charles Bukowski.

Both were quintessential ‘Stand-Up Poets’, a term that suggests most of the qualities most common to poets of my ilk within my own lifetime. You could find it defined first in an article my former officemate here, Charles Stetler, and I published in the Minnesota Review in 1969, Volume IX, Number 1, entitled ‘Edward Field: Stand-Up Poet’.

Field’s first book had been entitled Stand Up, Friend, with Me. I discovered him through a poem, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein,’ from his second book, Variety Photoplays – the poem had also appeared in the New York Review of Books.

Field is still a good friend, and I consider him our greatest living poet. He splits the year between a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village and a flat near Paddington Station in London.

Later, my friend and colleague, Charles Harper Webb, a great poet himself, published an enormously successful anthology in various editions, the most recent of which is Stand Up Poetry: The Anthology, from University of Iowa Press. I use it in all my poetry classes, even though Field, and Stetler, and I were co-editors of The New Geography of Poets, from U. of Arkansas Press in 1991 or 1992.

It was a lesser sequel to Field’s Bantam Press anthology A Geography of Poets, that sold 31,000 copies in a pocket book edition in, I think, 1977. It was the first truly decentralizing anthology of poets in the USA, because Field had discovered via his readings around the USA that poetry was no longer the possession of NYC and Boston. The spread of university creative writing programs and the underground little mags and small presses had combined to ignite that phenomenon. Another aspect of it was sometimes called “the mimeo revolution,” a precursor, I suppose, to the Internet revolution. It helped to popularize Bukowski.

Webb didn’t know we had invented the term “Stand Up Poetry” when we used it for our article – especially in the first couple of pages, but he credited us as soon as I called it to his attention and showed him the similarities in our summation and his brilliantly organized and explicated introduction to his anthology. Field’s first Geography introduced many of us young California poets to a national audience for the first time.

Ron Koertge and I had become great friends at the University of Arizona in graduate school – I was there 1961-64 – and we were very much both in a learning stage, and much of what we learned was from each other – an ongoing mutual influence which continued into The Wormwood Review, which was the best poetry magazine of my lifetime, from the 1960s to the death of its editor, Marvin Malone, in the mid-1990s.

I’ve mentioned that I was inevitably influenced by poets I had learned to love earlier – Dylan Thomas, E. E. Cummings, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath – not to mention all the poets I read in graduate school and as a lifelong teacher and reviewer of literature. But Ron, Edward, and Buk (or Hank, as he liked to be called) were major influences from among the living. And so were many fiction writers such as Hemingway, Barthelme, Brautigan, and such, because my poetry was often highly narrative or dramatic – lots of dialogue(s).

Though it is your career, have you found yourself taking writing less or more seriously as it has gone on? Or has it been the same throughout? I guess I am speaking here of futility and purpose.

I always took my writing seriously, and I always wrote a lot and published more and more all the time (from about 1993 on), but my writing seemed more casual in the early days – more youthful, naturally – and I still write a lot of what I call my “smart-ass poems,” as they occur to me, and because my younger readers demand them, and I virtually invented the very short poem – one of mine was three words – although I got the idea from Norman Mailer’s collection Deaths for the Ladies, but I don’t think he wrote any poems after that, and I wrote thousands – I’ve published something like 4,000 according to one index that is linked to geraldlocklin.org.

But as my parenthood burgeoned – I have seven children by three marriages, and nine grandkids so far – my seriousness naturally increased – and I took my teaching very seriously, although I gave the impression of being highly unconventional and off-handed about it – and when I almost died of pulmonary embolisms in 1993, and quit drinking and hanging out in bars – the drinking life poems trailed off, and I began writing hundreds of ekphrastic poems in which I was often as irreverent as I had always been, but also celebratory, and mainly I used the art objects, or jazz or opera, etc. as starting points for poems that might end up who knows where, often in my memories or reflections.

I had always written books of travel poems and I continued to. But yes, one does begin to confront aging, death, and so forth, although I still tap dance vigorously at my poetry readings, and I toss in a Lady Gaga medley.

So I would say that I take things more seriously now – especially my progeny and other loved ones. I had always taken my friends very seriously also. I wouldn’t call myself somber or saturnine, but I do pontificate more than I used to, though I’ve long been a somehow agnostic ex-Catholic, who definitely took Catholicism seriously as a kid. I was practically a theologian, though also immersed in athletics: I was co-captain of my high school football, basketball, and track teams in senior year, but I was also Student Prefect of the parish sodality (a youth organization, non-political).

But by the end of high school I was growing away from the church, mainly just tired of sexual guilt, but also under the influence of James Joyce, Graham Greene, and Italian novelists such as Silone, Vittorini, and Pavese – actually all of them, because I had a very literary and Italian good friend. And I also had a high school sweetheart, who would become my first wife.

I definitely mined my childhood and adolescence in my early, often experimental stories and novellas.

Gerald Lockin book coverWith growing amounts of disposable fiction being published, do you think writing has become something too much of a profession, a moneyed ends, rather than a sincere exploration that is merely a necessity for a writer? Perhaps it has always been this way. I often catch myself revering the things from before my time, imagining they were somehow better, though I guess there was also a lot of chaff then, too.

I do think we’ve lacked the giants of the modern period during the postmodern period, but on the other hand we’ve had a lot more extremely good writers in the last 60 years than in the previous 50. Think of Iris Murdoch and A.S. Byatt alone, how many excellent and many-layered novels they produced, and Martin Amis, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Roddy Doyle, Kureishi… I could go on endlessly, and what pleasure I took from them, and maybe they are a bit long in the tooth now – or worse yet, a bit dead, and maybe I haven’t found as many younger writers I enjoy as much, but their own generation probably enjoy their writers as much as I enjoyed mine.

My former officemate, Chuck Stetler, and I created a course, ‘Fiction Now’, and took turns teaching it for years, and we changed the reading list every semester, and we loved the books and the students loved the books, and we never came close to running out of current books to teach. And even in my graduate seminars in 20th-Century British Fiction and in 20th-Century American Fiction, we sometimes studied a neglected modernist in detail, but more and more I just assigned more and more of the current novels and let them do their papers on the modernists, whom I concentrated on in the double-numbered graduate/undergraduate period courses, the surveys as opposed to the seminars. So I don’t think the novel is dead by any means but we may be waiting for a few rough beasts to slouch their way into print.

Is it dangerous for a writer to a have a philosophy, even for a time, despite that philosophy changing? This brings me back to the message. Is there a place for a message? Or is it all eventually forgotten and lost to inculcation or early education and prejudices?

I think I’ve already noted that there have always been great novelists with a message – Tolstoy, Dickens, most of the Victorians, most of the writers of the 1930s; it’s just that for later readers the messages that were most topical when the books were printed are of least importance to later readers.

The same with poetry: who really cares about the politics or religion of Hopkins, Yeats, Auden, Thomas, Browning, Arnold, etc.? The fiction lives by its stories, not its messages, and the poetry by its music not its messages. But a message for its own generation can be one level of the work – it’s just ultimately not the most important one. No matter what the theorists tell us, there are such things as aesthetic universals – they are just not to be narrowly implemented.

Find a novel or novella you really like, and imitate its structure. I did that with Miss Lonelyhearts, and it served me very well as a starting point and scaffolding for an early novella of mine that I still like a lot. I used Nathanael West’s structure for my own characters and story.

We all learn by imitation. Look at Lady Gaga and Madonna. Look at Ulysses and the Odyssey.

Two messages that have stood the test of time – unfortunately – are those conveyed by Brave New World and 1984: the totalitarian carrot in the first (Soma, or drugs in general) and the totalitarian whip in the latter (threatening the greatest fear of the individual or the group).

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All Experience Devolves To Gratitude: Dan Fante

Carrying the torch passed on by Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr, for many Dan Fante is America’s most vital writer. Interview by Declan Tan

Mooch by Dan Fante coverDan Fante is one of the last surviving writers of his generation that could be called a “maverick”. Having spent years in his own personal wilderness, and never touching a typewriter, he spat his years of alcoholism and excess into a maelstrom of novels, poetry and plays. Continuing the tradition of Hubert Selby Jr. (his literary hero), Charles Bukowski and the works of his legendary father John, he has written about the sleep paralysis of the American nightmare from the perspective of someone who has lived through it.

Born in Los Angeles, Fante briefly studied acting at UCLA before going on to hold a number of low-end jobs as he went cross-country to New York working, amongst other things, as a telemarketer, private investigator and cab driver. He settled there, for a time, during the 60s. During this period he wrote plays for radio and local theatre groups and got heavily into drinking and drugs, giving up on his burgeoning career in the early 1972.

Years later and sober, he has written two critically acclaimed plays, both staged in the late 90s: The Closer (aka Boiler Room) and Don Giovanni. His debut novel, Chump Change, was the first of the Bruno Dante saga and a struggle to get published; he sent the manuscript to a slew of American publishers who all rejected it, before finding a home for the work in France.

He recently published Bruno Dante’s latest installment, 86’d and a second poetry collection, Kissed By A Fat Waitress.

What kind of writer is it that you do not respect?

That’s simple. Those who write simply to titillate. Disposable entertainment fiction.

How do you feel about ‘writing’? Are there particular things that have kept you going?

My father John Fante, felt being an author was nearly a sacred calling. I share that with him. A good book can change a life. I continue to try to write that kind of book.

Before you started to actually write, was it something that you felt always seemed to be waiting for you?

You mean other than insanity and death? It took years to scrape the crust of self-hate and madness away. Years. But even as a bewildered young guy I always wanted to write. Writers were my heroes.

Cover of 86d by Dan FanteWhat is art worth? What is life worth? Do they amount to the same thing?

Art is experience – a place visited beyond the reasoning mind. The sense of knowing and experiencing someone’s beauty and passion with awe and admiration. No, they are not the same thing.

Is there a purpose, an underlying intent, to your writing?

Any writer worth his own ashes believes that his words can change the world.

So, there is something worth believing in?

Yes! The living knowing of one’s self as a spiritual entity. The celebration of breathing in and out. All experience devolves to gratitude.

Should a writer have a ‘point’, apart from honesty?

That people will understand his heart. Books are scribbled notes sealed in a bottle and then thrown into the sea.

You have previously mentioned the influence of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but what else was it that drew you to playwriting? Is there something in it that cannot be done with another medium, say poetry or prose?

Yes, surely. The medium of speech has a profound impact. Live theatre – good live theatre – reaches passed the mind to touch the heart.

Have you considered film? Can it offer anything?

Yes. But ‘film’ by its nature is a collaborative effort, which I believe compromises the experience. But there are not wonderful films nonetheless.

What about television?

I don’t know. I don’t look at television. But I do know that it poisons the brain and trivializes all emotion.

Cover of poetry book by Dan FanteHave you ever thought about going back to acting?

Yes. Creating a character on stage can be magical. The experience of inhabiting someone else’s body and emotions is singular and amazing.

You once said, “My secret weapon is my anger”. What are some of the things that make you angry?

The ‘screwing’ of the American people by the merciless engine of corporate greed really does piss me off – when I let myself think about it. The USA has changed the Europeans view themselves. Out of control Capitalism is the plague of the millennia.

Do you feel as if you have to stand by your words or defend them against critics?

People ‘get’ my stuff or they don’t. Most critics are paid to think and not to feel. I don’t write to please critics.

Who is worthwhile to read (poetry, prose or otherwise)? Is Selby still important to you?

All of it. Selby shined a light into the darkness of my mind and allowed me to become friends with my mind.

How do you stave off complacency in your work?

By continuing, hopefully, to get better as an artist.

When you write, does it flow quickly? Do you re-work a lot?

I write two hours a day, six days a week – unless I’m really hot and on to something. I begin my day by going back in my manuscript three or for pages from where I left off. I start by re-working, then let my mind take me forward.

Do you think an audience must be great for a writer to be great, or the other way round, or neither?

Writers are village square evangelists. An audience is essential.

So do you think it is a writer/artist’s duty to wake up the audience?

Oh yes.

How does one escape the guilt that bores into the mind of a Catholic?

By re-experiencing the notion of God.

Was Catholicism a big part of your upbringing?

Sin and personal damnation was a bigger part.

And the publishing world? How did those initial rejections affect you?

A writer must believe he has something worthwhile to say. When he comes to know that his work is important, then nothing will stop him.

Chump Change by Dan FanteDoes the ‘truth’ have to be marketable to get published?

The truth is always marketable if not always pleasant.

I sense some kind of compatibility with yourself and Bukowski’s opinions on contemporary literature that it is airless and false. Would you agree with something like that?

For the most part. Bukowski despised convention. It fed his rage and his work.

What function did drugs have for you earlier in your life?

Without booze and drugs I’d be dead. It helped for years – until it didn’t.

Is originality as important as honesty in writing?

Good writing is always original. Honest is always original.

What would a snapshot of modern life look like to you?

Chaos that leads back to the quest for peace of mind. The more fucked-up things get the closer we get to real metamorphosis.

And how about your own?

I spent the first half of my life pouring gasoline on myself – in search of a match. This second half I’ve set to music… Too many questions but all quite well asked.

The Shape of Sound: Shannon Novak

Sourav Roy interviews New Zealand artist Shannon Novak about the history of synesthesia and how his practice focuses on the relationship between sound, colour, form, time, and social context

Just what shade of orange is a hemidemisemiquaver? If you could hear a Mondrian, what would it sound like? The works of Shannon Novak, an emerging artist from Auckland, New Zealand will not answer these questions but will raise plenty more, one more fascinating than the next. His work explores the multiple strands that link sound, colour, form, time, and social context. A pianist since a very young age and an instructional designer for a significant number of years, his abstract paintings of simple shapes and colours, sometimes accompanied by his own musical compositions are anything but simplistic. His exploration of these connections have taken him places: musical and silent installations, piano albums and even a global sound/art project which resonated across ever-expanding ring of participating galleries in locations including, Belgium, Iceland, Nigeria, Italy, the UK and the USA.

How do you compare your work that has an audible sound component to work without?

The inclusion of audible sound in a work is determined by whether or not it supports the investigation at hand. In The Four Dimensions of a Note, I explored the relationship between four integrated dimensions of sound. Given the focus of each work was on an individual note in isolation I opted not to add an audio component, as it would have taken away from the simplicity of the work. In contrast, Semitone Shift considered multiple notes moving from one state to another therefore added an audio component to compliment and energised this complexity.

How has your work as an instructional designer influenced your work?

The influence is heavy if we consider instructional design as designing the optimum learning experience for a given audience. In The Four Dimensions of a Note works were displayed in three major groupings or phases: introduction to the dimensions, the conceptual framework, and the four dimensions realised. This design follows an instructional design principle where an idea is revealed stage by stage to help learners construct knowledge. It was envisaged that if a viewer walked around the works in order through the three phases, they would arrive at a deeper understanding of the underlying concept than if they chose to view works in random order. Another aspect of instructional design that influences my work is the layout of information in a way that best focuses the learner on what is most important. In Semitone Shift, the works were designed to focus the viewer on particular forms and colours.

How has your childhood influenced your work?

I grew up in a small coastal village called Oakura on the west coast of the North Island, New Zealand. My mother is an artist so I grew up in an environment full of creative energy that never wavered and was always challenging. We lived a short distance from the main city New Plymouth where public art thrived in multiple forms and I distinctly recall feeling a pull to the works of two well-known New Zealand artists, Michael Smither (who is now a mentor of mine) and Len Lye. Michael Smither had created murals using colour and form to represent sound related investigations whilst Len Lye had created alarmingly loud kinetic sculptures. I was encouraged to explore ideas through both art and music from a young age, many of which have helped form investigations present day.

What is your take on synesthesia?

There are many forms of synesthesia and I seem to have a blend of a few. One form I haven’t seen thoroughly documented is a ‘form-to-beat’ synesthesia. I look at everyday objects like buildings, and can hear a percussive beat. Different objects will have different beats. I recently connected with a leading researcher in synesthesia about this and was told this was rare and that there wasn’t enough data on this form to draw any solid conclusions at this point in time. The other form I have is the more common and well-documented sound to colour (and vice versa) synesthesia.

One of the most obvious visual representations of music is a musical note. Do the abstract forms in your works somehow refer to the forms of musical notes?

The forms I have been using lately are largely rectangular and circular. I have attempted to deconstruct these forms into motifs that allude to sound events and in the process have avoided using literal representations of musical notes. Circular forms were used in the works from Semitone Shift to represent the activation of sound, whilst rectangular forms were used to represent sound qualities such as pitch, volume, and timing.

What about the use of colour? Does a specific colour represent a specific note?

There have been many studies throughout history that link a specific colour with a specific sound from Isaac Newton’s colour wheel, to George Field’s Chromatics, to Alexander Scriabin’s ‘colour hearing’. Present day and new studies are emerging that extend this view such as the colour to sound correlations made by harmonic scientist Richard Merrick in his text Interference. Merrick maps colour relative to a key based on harmonic function as opposed to mapping colour absolute to a sound frequency or pitch. In my own work I do not select a particular colour or colours to represent a given note, rather colour is used to represent my synesthetic response to sound. It creates a tension in the work between the measurable aspect of sound (pitch, volume, and timing) and the more immeasurable (the synesthetic response).

Have you thought about the visual representation of music genres such as country, rap, and pop?

One concept I developed last year that never reached fruition was called “Music Shop”. I wanted to create an experience where viewers would walk into the gallery and experience a range of synesthetic responses to different musical genres as works augmented with audio components. The consideration of music genres is something Michael Smither has explored and an example of this was present in his exhibition Shared Harmonics. One work titled DAG was based on a common rock guitar chord progression.

Do ideas come to you first as music or visuals?

When developing a work I begin with a sound, and let the sound guide the composition. This can be a wrestling match at times as I often experience a strong desire to create geometric forms first, then compose sound around the forms. From experience this is usually an unsuccessful strategy so always return to the sound and let it lead the way.

Which artists past and/or present have inspired your practice?

When I think about those who have inspired me, I think not only of artists in the field of geometric abstraction but those in other fields, as I am inspired by both visual and behavioural practices. For example, Victor Vasarely’s use of colour is visually inspiring, whereas Claude Debussy’s act of challenging the traditional methods of composition inspires my behaviour. Key New Zealand artists that have had a major influence on my work to date include Michael Smither, Gordon Walters, Roy Good, and Michael Parekowhai. Key artists outside New Zealand include Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, and Piet Mondrian. Key influences in other fields include Richard Merrick (harmonic science), John Stuart Reid (cymatics), Neil Ieremia (dance), and Michael Nyman (music).

What role do installations play in your practice?

Installations are integral to my practice as they are one of many ways to extend the reach of my ideas. I was recently commissioned to create an installation called Sonic Meal that commented on how the digitisation of sound has diluted the experience of spirit in sound. The replacement of live sound with electronic substitutes is like the processing of food from its raw form into the seemingly more palatable. I set up a dinner table in front of a well-known New Zealand cathedral and placed chopped up musical instruments on plates with a single figure sitting at the head of the table. The instruments were painted a block colour that alluded to a type of food. The figure wore headphones connected to one of the plates and a piece of music I had composed was playing in the background (chopped up and reassembled). If I were not engaged in creating installations, this idea may not have been the multi-sensory, three-dimensional experience I had envisioned.

Sonic Meal image gallery

Last year you led a global installation called Sound Fragments. What was this about and what were some of the challenges and highlights?

Sound Fragments was inspired by research I was undertaking at the time in the field of harmonic science, in particular, the analysis of sound waves. It started out as a few circles on a piece of paper then slowly evolved into a global event. The installation represented sound waves that spread outwardly from a New Zealand gallery, to other galleries around New Zealand, then to galleries around the world. Fragments of sound (works) were left in each gallery as the sound wave passed by, so over time, works appeared locally, nationally, then internationally. One key challenge was the project management of multiple stakeholders in different countries with different time zones, different etiquettes, and different languages. Another key challenge involved getting potential stakeholders to see geometric abstraction as a valid form of communicating an idea. Key highlights included a successfully executed installation despite the risks, contribution to the field of geometric abstraction, and promotion of New Zealand art. It was also interesting to see how the work was treated differently in different contexts around the world.

What are you reading and listening to now?

I am about to read a book called Movement and Balance that delves into the art of Sophie Taeuber-Arp and I have been listening to the works of New Zealand composer Jack Body.

Further Resources:

Ship Shape: We Are Augustines

Fresh off their tour with The Boxer Rebellion, Russell Mardell interviewed Billy McCarthy from Brooklyn’s We Are Augustines in the wake of their album Rise Ye Sunken Ships

Brooklyn based trio We Are Augustines bring their album Rise Ye Sunken Ships to the world this June, and for singer/guitarist Billy McCarthy and bassist Eric Sanderson, it is the culmination of an extraordinary labour of love; a journey that has seen both suffer a collision of professional hardship and personal tragedy and yet come through strong enough the other side, to create a record that has started receiving the sort of buzz many long standing bands could only imagine.

As one half of the now disbanded indie rock band Pela, they had more than their fair share of music industry bullshit to deal with; label and management problems helping bring about the end of a band that looked to be really hitting their stride after 2007’s marvellous Anytown Graffiti. As the band broke, the personal tragedies hit; events dealt with in such raw emotion on the album, and the pair were forced to revaluate and question their calling. After much soul searching, McCarthy and Sanderson decided to continue, that they had come too far and given too much of themselves to turn their backs on it. The songs themselves had now been invested with an even greater meaning and depth, and perhaps, in the end, there could only be one choice for them. Reluctant to step back in to an industry machine that had kicked them in the teeth so many times, yet armed with songs they believed in so passionately, McCarthy and Sanderson slowly started aligning themselves with similar creative minds, people who shared their passion, and decided to navigate their own course to their public. Alongside producer Dave Newfeld they set to work crafting an album that would do justice to the belief, friendship and songs that had kept them together.

Anyone who has heard the songs already released on their website or been lucky enough to see their high energy, huge heart live performances know that with We Are Augustines nothing is left on the sidelines, every drop of blood, sweat and tears are there to see, that collective heart pumping emotion and immediacy through great musical story telling all brought to life in McCarthy’s astonishing vocals; a voice that could seep in to the soul as easily as it could break you to pieces. Now, with the permanent addition of drummer Rob Allen to their line up, and a growing wave of anticipation in front of them, We Are Augustines are finally ready to launch.

I’m constantly amazed by how many great bands seem to be coming out of Brooklyn at the moment. Is there as much of ‘scene’ there as that would suggest or is it just the massive diversity there that naturally attracts artists?

I’m not sure really. It’s a pretty large city and a large borough at that. I know there are multiple genres going on, and it’s hard to define a ‘scene’. Just when I think I’m aware of a lot of it, I find out about some underground cabaret movement or something… so yeah lots of music going on in BK most likely due to the impossibly high rents of Manhattan.

You travelled Europe busking many years ago, including time in London. Did we look after you?!

Yes you did! Me and my dear friend just up and left our miserable existence in our small towns and bought the cheapest one way red eye flights to anywhere we could. London was a starting and often ending point to our adventures. The tube was an incredible testing ground for our material at the time. We were routinely harassed by police and drunk kids, but we only sang our guts out more. My best friend made $300 one New Year’s Eve there, which of course bought another ticket to another music adventure.

How did your love affair with music start? Who were you listening to growing up?

I can’t figure out if all people have this or it is just creative minds, but I can remember music quite vividly back to the age of four or five years old. It’s one of the ways in which I can identify the period or year my memories are coming from, namely the 80s. My sister listened to Prince a lot. The radio was really playing the hits… The Police, Cyndi Lauper, Howard Jones etc. There were summer anthems and winter melodies that got in my bones. Those years were so big on choruses, a very hook driven time in music. Reggae was pouring out of car windows in my small coastal town, and surfers were blaring Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys as they waxed their boards in their front yards. It was a very rich musical upbringing. I was aware of the edgy aspect of counter culture music from a pretty young age. I was impressed at the time punk rockers took to paint band logos on their leather jackets. I could tell music was really important to people’s identities from an early age.

You clearly invest a huge amount in your lyrics; were you writing growing up, even before music came along? Any desire to do a Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen and write in other fields?

Yes I was writing pretty early. I was really big on drawing and illustrating my own little comics. The themes were basically making fun of authority figures and casting them in various bizarre scenarios. For example, making a math teacher a bull rider and the headmaster of the school the bull he was riding… stuff like that. I was very into making recordings with friends into a cassette recorder, doing impressions, making fake talk shows. I was also into breakdancing and making up songs. I do have plans for a couple of books; I’ve been talking to a writer friend in NYC about how to put them out properly.

Are you naturally attracted to great lyricists yourself in the artists you listen to?

I have always been interested in lyrics. One of the great things about having hippie parents that my generation enjoyed was a vast record collection in the house. I really fell in love with blues music. The lyrics were profound to me; drunkards, Jesus, cheating, praying, shit that made my generation’s music pallet look shallow! I stayed with those recordings forever. I then heard the greats from there, Johnny Cash, Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, etc. But my first record was actually from England, it was Never Mind The Bollocks I bought it myself when I was 12 because it was bright pink and looked very important up there on the shelf. I was like “‘God Save the Queen’… hmm I don’t know who this guy is singing about but he’s pretty serious!”

You are a band that really wears it’s heart on its sleeve, with Rise Ye Sunken Ships clearly being a deeply personal album for you, do you find that kind of openness cathartic?

It’s always just about reaching down as far as it takes to be honest, and working the music until you can stand behind it and be proud. So yes a catharsis takes place, but I always tell my friends that ask about how it feels to perform, that singing in a rock band feels like running down the street screaming your diary at the top of your lungs for an hour.

As part of Pela you had your fair share of crap to deal with from the music industry, and it’s been a real labour of love to get to this point, was there ever a doubt for you that you’d continue in another band?

Yes much doubt. Quite a lot. I think after spending summer after summer in a rehearsal space and always being too poor to travel or enjoy life consistently, one starts asking if it is a foolish endeavor or a true calling, like some kind of destiny. I don’t wish those questions on anyone. I agonized over them.

What can people expect from Rise Ye Sunken Ships? Do you feel any pressure to have any carry over from the Pela days or is it healthy for you to have a clean break?

I think you can expect us pushing ourselves past our limits creatively. That’s a mistake young bands make, they don’t take proper time with the second record. I feel we did. We grew a lot and there is a lot of passion and meaning in this record for us.

You’ve toured the UK recently with The Boxer Rebellion and you seem to have gone down a storm, what were your experiences of UK crowds?

Just lovely, lovely people. Hearty, hilarious and proud people. There’s tons of character, dimension and texture in the UK. I am so proud to have been able to sing over there with my band. I think I was acutely aware that we needed to go past the well-mannered obligatory claps for an opening band and have it out, give our hearts and sing from our gut. When I opened my eyes at the end of the shows they were clapping and showing their support every night. That meant a lot to me because so many of my heroes come from the United Kingdom.

Finally… I’m someone who loves a good bit of headwear but just can’t carry it off without looking a fool, what advice would you give someone on the best way to work a hat?!

The hat compliments the stuff on the insides baby… put that hat on and smile. Life is to be lived, and you are rocking it down the street in your own special way.

Further Resources:

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Russell Mardell is a playwright, scriptwriter and filmmaker based in the South West of England. Having trained in film production, he went on to write and direct the low-budget films Burn and Cool Blokes: Decent Suits. His theatre work has included the recent plays The Seventeenth Valentine and Freestate, both of which premiered in London. Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass is his first collection of short fiction. He is currently at work on his first novel, has two stage plays ready for production and is in pre-production on his next film.

About Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass: “Welcome to Mewlish Lull – the sort of town you pass through on your way to somewhere else without even noticing it exists. This debut collection of short fiction presents a bizarre portrait of a world just to the left of reality. In 12 stories and with a cast of oddball characters, through the most absurd of comedies, the darkest of nightmares and those quiet moments of madness that live within us all, Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass takes us to a strange town where anything could happen… If only you could fit in. But sometimes being an outsider is the only way to be…”

Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass is available from Troubador Publishing.

Spamazon: ebook Junk and Content Farms

As Google tackles the content farms gaming their system, the ebook platform has become the newest territory for ripp-off content. Vanessa Zainzinger talks to Mike Essex, author of an influential post on the topic, about the war on spam

Mike Essex has really hit a nerve. One post on UK-based digital marketing agency Koozai’s blog had authors, journalists and publishers jump up in shocking revelation and created a wave of ‘oh-my-god-look-at-this articles’ all over the web. The big epiphany was ebook content farms. While ebook platforms like Amazon’s Kindle store, Apple, Smashwords and Lulu have given aspiring authors a chance to publish their work quicker than ever, they are also making life worryingly easy for scammers. With little or no copyright detectors, no barrier stands between someone else’s content, the copy-and-paste function and an upload button. These online stores are full of plagiarized content.

It is hard to believe just how quickly and easily stolen content is up online and ready for sale. Even more unbelievable is how little attention has been given to the problem. The concept of content farms is old hat since Google ‘fought’ the likes of them with its now infamous algorithm update Panda, yet the farms’ business re-location has left ebook vendors unimpressed. The spam-attack could not have come as a surprise, Mike Essex tells Spike in an interview about his views on the issue.

The search specialist says, “it would have been naive for Amazon and other providers to not predict that their systems would be manipulated, as any open system that allows anyone to add content will always be ripe for manipulating. Amazon have to fight con artists everyday through their marketplace by trying to stop people selling counterfeit goods, so they are already aware of many of these problems via this channel.”

Content farms are companies which create thousands of pieces of low quality content each day, targeted to search engines. Their profit is made from advertising revenue. The content farm issue became a real trend last year with the rise of Demand Media and Answers.com. The system works just as well with ebooks, as long as nothing hinders “farmers” from pumping out books filled with content stolen from blogs, Wikipedia or other ebooks and submitting it without being scrutinized.

“I think the issue has remained hidden so long because people tended to look at content farms as a means of getting advert revenue and links to a website. For ebooks the only benefit is to gain revenue from ebook sales,” Mike explains. He suggests that the sales factor will make the liability to quantity over quality even worse than it was with conventional content farms. Some spam authors flood the stores with thousands of low quality books, selling their copied and pasted rubbish for 99p each and gaining considerable profit from it. Searching for Manuel Ortiz Braschi in the Amazon Kindle store, for example, will provide you with 3,162 results for strikingly useful titles such as How to Take Care of Your Pet Iguana, How to Adopt a Baby or – my personal favourite – 30 Writing Tips for ebook Authors: how anyone can become a better writer by following time tested writing strategies. He might actually have some insight on that last one.

“It’s the exact same model as with content farms, but at least with content farms readers didn’t get conned out of any money. This is actually much worse,” Mike tells Spike.

When the content farms seemed to be taking over the web’s search results, Google reacted with Panda. Panda is a change in Google’s algorithm which is meant to punish search rankings for websites that produce low-quality content. The search engine strives to scan the web for original content and to present that before any duplicates. “Without the system other people who copied the content would outrank [the original], and that’s the risk that the ebook marketplace faces if it doesn’t enforce a similar set of checks.” Mike compares Google’s fight against content farms with the dangers for the ebook market: “Original authors will be beaten by stolen versions of their content.”

The only warnings to rely on are negative reviews by ripped-off customers, but complaints are rare for purchases of merely 99p. The really efficient way to tackle the countless amount of undetected scams in the ebook marketplace lies with the providers.

“As a bare minimum, providers should automatically scan the web – or work with a company like Google to do the scanning – to identify the instances of stolen content.” Mike also suggests the use of brand monitoring to the sites selling PLR content. PLR (Private Label Rights) content implies the right to use content written by somebody else as if it were your own. “This problem is driven by sites that sell PLR content, which lets you bulk buy low quality articles. [ebook vendors should] either get them shut down or block the content from being sold on their stores.”

That all providers do have options to report books on their stores for low quality or stolen content raises the question of their responsibility towards legitimate authors selling in their stores. Ultimately the authors are those who suffer from an easily manipulated system. They are not only being pushed back in search results, but also losing potential readers who are disappointed in low quality purchases and lose trust in ebook channels.

On the other hand, authors themselves might just lose patience with ebook providers Mike claims. “Another possibility is that authors will simply move away from large aggregators of content like Amazon, and will sell their content via their personal website instead. This removes you from the competition and gives authors a much better place to prove their content is good and not just mass produced garbage.”

An ebook author himself, Mike Essex’s book Free Stuff Everyday Guide is available on the Amazon Kindle store. His advice for young ebook writers: “If authors do decide to stay on aggregators, they will need to do more to stand out. As their content is digital they should send as many free PDF copies out as possible in order to get a buzz going. This will lead to reviews on the aggregators – which add authenticity to the book – and real people writing real coverage of the book on other websites”.

Readers are more likely to search online for information on a book before purchasing it, as their trust in cheap ebooks is increasingly declining. Despite the channel’s problems, giving new authors a chance to be published and discovered is certainly a system worth keeping, given that ebook providers themselves begin to protect their platforms and their authors.

Further Resources:

Off The Ropes: The Boxer Rebellion

London-based indie rock band The Boxer Rebellion are proof that even in the fragile, fickle beast of the music industry, sometimes, with enough belief, a strong unity of purpose and most importantly a huge blessing of talent, the good does finally triumph. Russell Mardell interviews the band’s Todd Howe

Independent since their only record label fell apart, the week their blistering debut Exits was released in 2005, they managed to not only overcome that setback but flourish in the freedom where many bands would have floundered, building a career on strong reviews, an epic live experience and a trio of albums that effortlessly blend majesty and ferocity with subtly and beauty.

Their self-released follow up Union, led out by the barnstorming single Evacuate, garnered great success through iTunes, helping them become the first unsigned (read: independent) band to enter the US billboard top 100 albums chart through digital sales alone, and with this years momentous, The Cold Still released under their own label Absentee Recordings, they look likely to take that success to a whole new level.

With the label going bust so soon after the release of Exits, there must still be a feeling that the record hasn’t had the life it deserves?

It was more of a relief than anything. We were stuck in a deal that just wasn’t right from the start. I’m extremely proud of that record and I always will be. It was disappointing for all of that to have happened to us but at the time we had to focus on writing new material and moving on. We decided to go underground and not resurface until we had a new record, one that we thought would be able to get where we needed to go. It took nearly four years but we got there. It was honestly quite a struggle and I have a real love / hate relationship with Union because of how long it took and how hard we worked to get it done.

Many bands would have gone under after similar situations, what was the driving force that kept you all together?

We always lead with “stupidity” in answer to that question. It really is a case of the four of us wanting nothing more than to make music and knowing that eventually we would find our audience.

The success Union had on iTunes must have been so rewarding after the problems with Exits. Had iTunes always been a consideration or did they approach you?

iTunes approached us. They were fans since the first demos in 2004 and emailed saying they wanted to promote the record. We hadn’t even finished it but it gave us the kick up the ass. That’s when we decided to re-record ‘Forces’ and ‘These Walls Are Thin’. We mixed it in six days, mastered it on the Monday and uploaded it on the Tuesday. Three weeks later it was at number one on the iTunes chart. We’d changed management literally the same week that iTunes got in touch and it was a combination of things that led to ‘Evacuate’ being the global single of the week. That was an incredible week.

It seems wrong calling you an unsigned band now; with all you’ve achieved on your own, the term seems redundant.

That’s the main reason we started Absentee Recordings. Personally I hate talking in those terms. People were saying “I can’t believe these guys aren’t signed!” when we were basically running our own independent label, just without a name. We sold enough copies of Union in the first few weeks of release to remain independent. We were flown to America to meet labels, wined and dined and realised it wasn’t for us. Nothing felt right at the time. We’re not closed to partnering with a label in future but we’re very proud to be independent right now.

The music industry in the UK, seems to need to label bands ‘the next…’ presumably one great advantage of being independent is not having such external interference?

Bands being branded ‘the next…’ makes me almost physically sick. I’ve seen more bands be the next this or that and they’re not around anymore. It’s all bollocks. The only pressure we have is the pressure we place on ourselves to make better albums. We have complete creative freedom, if we didn’t we surely wouldn’t have released The Cold Still.

You recently featured in the film Going the Distance and this year saw you performing on the Letterman show, how did the two events come about? Do you get a sense of how the US is responding to you? Is it different to how you are seen in the UK?

The response in the US has been incredible. I’m saying that after two sold out shows in NYC and another in DC last night. The other shows are starting to sell out before we get there so it’s just getting better and better. The movie came about after our first show in LA in 2009. Some New Line Cinema people were there and asked if we could write a song for the film. We met the director in NYC a few days later and it changed into us actually appearing in the film. It all happened quite quickly. Letterman was down to our PR company in the US. The Letterman people liked us and offered us the slot about two weeks before. That show was quite an achievement for me, I’d watched the show a lot way back in the day, mainly for the bands that were on it. It made a big difference to us to actually do it. There just seems to be less formulated opinions about us outside the UK, which is still hard to accept given we are from there. We consider ourselves a British band, regardless of our origins. It’s frustrating because we know a wider audience is out there in the UK and we just keep getting blocked along the way. Our UK fans are amazing though.

You’ve never stood still musically and each album has a very different feel to it. Is it a conscious thing when you record a new album, the need to be different from the previous one, or is it simply an organic process?

We don’t do it for the sake of it; it starts from not wanting to repeat ourselves. The Cold Still just took on a certain feel when we were writing. There were some dark times in the middle and I think ‘Caught By The Light’ may have been the turning point. That song was really profound in the process for me and even now I find it a thing of beauty. Nathan truly excelled on this record both lyrically and in his delivery. The Cold Still is about as organic as it gets for us. Almost all of the songs were written in the rehearsal room and stemmed from ideas we had when all of us were there.

You worked with legendary producer Ethan Johns on The Cold Still how does such a relationship start? You also recorded most of the album live, was that a completely new experience for the band?

We recorded a version of ‘Both Sides Are Even’ at Fortress Studios (where we’d recorded Union) and I was really disappointed that it sounded just like Union. It was partly that but we knew that if we did the new record the same way we’d miss the mark. It was all about doing the songs justice. We discussed who we wanted to work with and Ethan was really the only one on our list. We sent him the demo and he said yes immediately. His approach of recording us all live was fantastic and it’s the single biggest reason it sounds so different from our previous albums.

You’ve got a very loyal fan base, I wonder whether part of the reason is the fact that you are to some extent a band built on word of mouth? People are coming to you because of the music. As a band that must mean a great deal to you?

I think the word of mouth has a great deal to do with it and I think we’ll rise above as a direct result of it. The crowds at shows have been incredible everywhere since the new album came out. We never take anything for granted, especially our fans. We spent so much time being kicked while we were down that even now its hard to shake that feeling that no-one is going to come to your show. Maybe I should get over that now…

Further Resources:

Russell Mardell is a playwright, scriptwriter and filmmaker based in the South West of England. Having trained in film production, he went on to write and direct the low-budget films Burn and Cool Blokes: Decent Suits. His theatre work has included the recent plays The Seventeenth Valentine and Freestate, both of which premiered in London. Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass is his first collection of short fiction. He is currently at work on his first novel, has two stage plays ready for production and is in pre-production on his next film.

About Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass: “Welcome to Mewlish Lull – the sort of town you pass through on your way to somewhere else without even noticing it exists. This debut collection of short fiction presents a bizarre portrait of a world just to the left of reality. In 12 stories and with a cast of oddball characters, through the most absurd of comedies, the darkest of nightmares and those quiet moments of madness that live within us all, Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass takes us to a strange town where anything could happen… If only you could fit in. But sometimes being an outsider is the only way to be…”

Silent Bombs Falling On Green Grass is available from Troubador Publishing.

The French Connection: Grosso Point Blank

Real-life drug-busting narc Sonny Grosso was the inspiration for The French Connection, advised Coppola on The Godfather and cruised gay bars with Pacino. Story by Tina Bexson

A dozen or so shiny, black suits and their flashy women were enjoying the exotic floor show of Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub, whilst the slick-haired man at the head of the table splashed the cash around. It was a sight that would change the lives of the two off-duty NYPD narcotics agents quietly sipping their drinks and surveying the scene from the terrace above.

The man with the dough was Pasquele “Patsy” Fuega, a major player in a Mafia-linked New York drugs ring. “I recognised a lot of the others as being dope pushers up in Harlem,” Detective Sonny Grosso recalls. “I told Egan and he wanted to put a tail of the Patsy at the end of the night.”

So Grosoo and partner Eddie Egan tailed Patsy and his bouffant blonde as they drove off on a stop-start tour of the Lower East Side, before heading across the East River and drawing up in front of a Brooklyn diner at 5am. Suspicion was aroused and they set up round-the-clock surveillance and wiretaps. That was just the beginning. During the next four months they uncovered an operation that had 50kg of heroin being smuggled from France to New York every six weeks for a quarter of a century.

The investigation culminated in one of the biggest drug hauls in American history, worth a mega ¢32m, all thanks to a chance encounter in a nightclub in 1961.

Shoot forward ten years, and chance changes Sonny Grosso’s life again. Up-and-coming filmmaker Phil D’Antoni and maverick director William Friedkin decide to turn the case into a film, The French Connection, based on Robin Moore’s factual book of the same name, and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as Egan and Grosso (renamed Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Once released it became a worldwide box-office hit, winning five Oscars and beating A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show for best film. It had it all: realistic locations, spontaneous camerawork, an unromantic portrayal of policing, and unbeatably pacey action. All of which proved ot be a major catalyst in the revival of the cop genre in the ‘70s, evident in movies such as Serpico and Dirty Harry.

The French Connection’s authenticity was down to advice from the experts. Friedkin immediately hired Egan (who died of cancer in 1995) and Grosso. Not only were they the film’s inspiration – both played small roles – but proved unbeatable technical advisors and location scouts. In fact, they were cinema’s first cop consultants, earning $150 each for working every day of the 60-day shoot as well as continuing 12-hour nightly shifts with the NYPD.

It wa the weeks in pre-production that helped dictate the raw undertones of Friedkin’s feature. Not only did Grosso and Egan grow up in East Harlem, it was also their beat, they knew the score. And in the weeks leading up to the shoot, Hackman, Scheider and Friedkin were taken on a journey they would never forget.

Grosso: “We let them run through the whole gambit with us: the investigations, arrests, even the paperwork and court appearances so they could see us testify. In the beginning they were all shocked by what they saw.

“The first time we hit a shooting gallery it was on 110th Street and 5th Avenue, that’s Harlem. There were about 20 people shooting p. One was a massive woman, about 260 pounds, with a tube around her arm and the needle still jabbed in a vein.

“They came with us when we hit the bars and interrogated people. No one knew they were actors and we let them question the dealers and addicts so they got to feel comfortable dealing with them as though they were policemen. That’s why the movie stands up so well, they’d done it for real.”

In one of two Harlem bar scenes, the extras were all cops posing as drug addicts and pushers. In the other, they were all off the street. “They were people Eddie and I had busted at one time or another. We went to see them at some centre where they were trying to re-habilitate themselves and when we asked if they wanted to be in the movie, they all jumped at the chance. It was that which gave it a real wild smell.”

There were a couple of gun-running scenes, so Grosso and Egan taught them exactly how to hold and fire the weapons during sessions at the police firing range. “They both used our guns in the film, too. Scheider also wore my watch and ring so he felt really comfortable. He wanted my shorts, but I wouldn’t let him have those.”

Scheider was, of course, an excellent choice to play Grosso – same build and colouration; and he hit the right note as the careful detective known for seeing the dark side to situations, hence the nickname “Cloudy” (given to him by Egan). Grosso was the perfect antidote to the flamboyant, risk-taking Egan who mastered disguises such as a hot dog vendor, a deaf mute and a priest. He was nicknamed “Popeye” for his constant “popeying” around Manhattan’s drinking holes. As Grosso says: “He was a real character, way out there, and a great cop.”

Egan’s idiosyncrasies are marked out early in the film. His bizarre method of confusing suspects during interrogation by asking them whether they “picked their feet in Poughkeepsie” is used in the scene when Hackman, dressed as Father Christmas, questions a young guy he and Scheider had chased through the streets. Grosso, having witnessed this so often during the ten years they worked together, hoped Friedkin wouldn’t use it. But he did. “Friedkin loved it. So did Hollywood. They lapped it up, so did the public,” he groans.

Hackman didn’t lap it up, however. Grosso: “Hackman got all disturbed the first time he saw us arrest and lock up a guy. He kept saying, ‘I’m not a copy, I shouldn’t be involved in this.’ Then, when we took the guy to court, he couldn’t wait to get him a hot dog when he was hungry, but Eddie was having none of it. I tried to explain that we had to arrest and bring to court 30 people a month, and bring in another 130 for questioning. If we bought everyone a hot dog, we’d be broke. About three weeks later, he saw the same guy in another shooting gallery. Then he started to get the idea.”

Hackman was far from ecstatic about portraying such an unconventional and sometimes prejudiced cop, and became increasingly irritated by Egan’s Irish “charm”, recalls Grosso: “Eddie was always teasing and chastising Gene. I think Gene had a bit of a problem with the character at the beginning. But as time went on I think he found that there were many similarities between them. When I saw the final cut I was amazed how much Hackman had become Eddie. It gives you the respect you have to have for actors who, with the proper research and direction, actually become the people they play, such as De Niro in Raging Bull.”

It was a great true-life story for the big screen, but the mechanics of filmmaking meant artistic licence was employed to ensure optimum visual effect. The famous scene where Hackman chases an L train was based on an actual chase in which Egan and Grosso tried ot keep ahead of a subway train between Penn Station and Grand Central so they could catch the drug-dealing Frenchman as he got off. To make it more visual, D’Antoni and Friedkin got Hackman to chase an L train which ran above ground along an elevated railway line. A kamikaze stuntman drove the car, driving flat out whilst weaving through the traffic to keep up with the train. The inspired filmic version of this event makes a great action sequence and culminates with Hackman shooting the unarmed Frenchman in the back. Then there’s the ominous and frenzied climactic shoot-out, giving a suitably ambiguous ending to the complicated tale.

Grosso’s new vocation as technical advisor didn’t end here. While Friedkin was completing the final shoot of The French Connection on Wards Island, Francis Ford Coppola was preparing to shoot the interior scenes for The Godfather nearby. Friedkin took Grosso over to meet Coppola. “Friedkin told Coppola that he couldn’t make a movie in New York without ‘Grosso and his gorillas’, so I was hired on the spot. I found locations, showed them how to search, hammered the crowds, drove cars and provided 75 cops as extras as well as members of my family for the wedding scene.”

Grosso made two small appearances in The Godfather as Phil, one of Captain McClusky’s (Sterling Hayden) cops. The first was outside the hospital when McCluskey orders him to lock up Michael (Pacino) and he says: “Give him a break Captain, he’s a war hero. He’s not mixed up with the mob.” They had to do about 18 takes. “I wanted to kill myself,” laughs Grosso. “Because I was acting with Pacino and Hayden, my voice went up in the air like a woman being chased in a dark alley. I learned how difficult it is to be an actor.”

“Phil” was also one of the four guys who shot Sonny Corleone (James Caan) in his car by the tollbooth out on Long Island. “I said to Coppola, ‘If four buys are shooting at him with machine guns each holding 45 slugs, not only would you not find Jimmy Caan, you wouldn’t find the car. They’d all be completely blown away.’

“The next day Coppola called me over, he was such a gentleman, and said: ‘I thought about what you said Sonny, but Jimmy Caan is bigger than life in this movie and we’ve got to kill him bigger than life.’ I still thought he was making a tremendous mistake, but I was dealing with reality and he was dealing with movies. Not only did I learn that he was right, but I also learned that that scene ended up being one of the most memorable in movie history.”

It was on Cruising (1980) that Grosso really came into his own as a technical expert. Reunited with Friedkin, he worked with Al Pacino tracing an undercover cop’s troubled journey into Manhattan’s S&M gay underworld to fish out a crazed killer. Grosso had spent over five years working undercover on all kinds of cases, including a community of deaf mutes (for which he had to learn sign language) and homosexual rings. “We took Pacino out to the gay clubs in Greenwich Village to show him how to operate in that world, so he could observe and get a feeling for how people act.”

But just as Hackman and Scheider would never know what it was really like to work as a narcotics agent, to live immersed in the overlapping worlds of the cop and the mobster, Pacino would never experience the reality of undercover work. He would never know what it took to actually get results, nor would he ever have to master the psychological tactics, or experience the fear.

“Apart from mastering your cover story, the biggest thing is to know how to get information without anyone realising; also, to know how to remember faces, times, locations so you can go back and complete a report. You’ve got to remember to adopt all the characteristics, too. It’s stupid, but I was once trying to buy marijuana in East Harlem. I wasn’t smoking because I don’t smoke, and a guy came over and asked if I wanted a cigarette… I almost said ‘no’.”

Then there’s the decision on whether to take protection. “You’re often afraid to wear a wire or carry a gun into the bars because women will pat you down or touch you in all different places when they hug you – they’re told to do that to check if you’re carrying. So you need to be really creative about where you’re gonna carry a pistol.

“I was once searched when I was carrying a gun in my crotch, they never pulled my pants down, but it got pretty hairy. I don’t konw what they would have done if they’d found it. Same goes with a wire. I’d wear it in a real strategic spot running down the lining in the back of my jacket. They won’t always pursue a search if you have a good line of crap, but you’ve got to have the bravado to call their bluff. I don’t want to make out this is 007, but it’s a dangerous job.”

Grosso went on to advise on many other movies as well as being story consultant on numerous television projects, including Kojak, The Rockford Files and Baretta. He formed his own production company, Grosso-Jacobson Communications Corp, in 1980. They’ve produced some of the most successful TV movies and action series sold worldwide, starring big names such as Martin Sheen and Paul Sorvino.

Still, doesn’t he miss the danger of being a cop and the thrill of the chase? At least that dry sense of humour is still evident in his reply: “What I do is I go once a month to a precinct and the cops let me slam the cell door a few times. Every cop says you get an orgasm when you hear it close.”

This article originally appeared in Hotdog magazine. Many thanks to Tina Bexson for permission to republish.

Refractions In The Looking Glass: Peter Weissman

Like many of his generation Peter Weissman recalls the ‘60s as a halcyon period of his life and, like his peers, came of age during this revolutionary era marked by social, cultural and political change, relayed in the memoir, I Think, Therefore Who Am I? Dolly Delightly investigates

Peter Weissman was involved in both the political scene and the hippie drug subculture, was arrested demonstrating against the Vietnam war and lived in New York’s East Village, trying to find himself whilst experimenting with drugs. During the 30-odd years it took him to complete I Think, Therefore Who Am I? he lived close to the people and locales of that past, documenting the odyssey of discovery and confusion, catalysed by psychedelic drugs.

Weissman went to Boston University for a graduate degree in journalism but left as soon as he could. He later completed his thesis, entitled ‘Trends Toward A New Age’, in 1971. He lived for a time in Berkeley, with its transplanted hippies and former political activists, and for the past 20 years in Woodstock, New York, the town associated with the festival. He has earned a living as an educational researcher, teacher, marketing clerk, postman, reporter, press secretary for a politician, gardener and as a freelance copyeditor for major publishers, which he now does from his country home.

I Think, Therefore Who Am I? (published in 2006) is the first book in a triumvirate, and has recently been translated and published in Italy under the title Penso, dunque chi sono? The second, Digging Deeper, was published 2010 and begins where the author’s psychedelic memoir ends, as he re-enters a world he once took for granted. From there, Weissman takes the reader on a coast-to-coast trip, sardonically observing himself as he presents a slice of the ‘60s generation negotiating the ‘70s in discrete, short stories. Weissman is currently working on the third and last book in the series.

You document your interest in writing in I Think, Therefore Who Am I? but what do you think was the first impulse that set you on the course to being a writer?

I wrote a poem in fifth grade which was published in a mimeographed school magazine. I remember feeling quite proud, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer then. I didn’t keep a diary or a journal at home, I didn’t read books (nor was I read to). In fact, I was always behind in English at school. Not surprisingly, in retrospect. A more formative writing experience occurred a few years later when I was in the seventh grade. A teacher by the name of Mr Lipmann showed an interest in my writing bringing to light the possibility that maybe it was something I could be good at.

Why did you feel compelled to record your experiences by writing a memoir?

I’ve been writing so long you’d think I’d know the answer to that. But I don’t, other than to say that I’m an expressive type, primarily a verbal person, as oppose to, say, a visual or an auditory one. As for recording my own experiences, it seems I have a need to explain myself. Also after giving up writing for a while I came to the conclusion that I needed to write because if I didn’t I went a little bit crazy.

Interestingly enough, some psychologists have claimed that the creative urge is a kind of neurosis. Would you agree?

I’ve heard that, usually in connection to a psychological exercise to determine whether or not the alleviation of neurosis interferes with the tension necessary to create. I myself conducted an experiment of sorts one winter, about 10 years ago, to test the claim that writers are compelled to write and found it to be true as without it I felt I lacked self-actualisation.

Your memoir records a time when you were heavily into drugs. How did you get into them and do you recall the first time?

A friend who read it told me that although I was in that world, I was never actually of it. I’m still thinking about that. I began, I guess, like many others of the ‘60s generation, smoking pot on weekends while in college. At the time, it was a daring thing to do and those who did it considered themselves as outsiders… It loosened me up. In fact, a few years later I was eager to try psychedelics, to see what all the fuss was about. And it was great, for a while. You’ll never hear me apologise for it.

When’s the last time you smoked a really good joint?

A long time ago. I don’t do it anymore. Among other reasons, it left me fatigued and sluggish, and as a result I couldn’t accomplish much. And when you get older – or at least as I’ve gotten older – accomplishing things becomes more important than getting high.

So what do you do for kicks nowadays?

Kicks? Too exciting a term for what turns me on nowadays. Between professional freelance book editing, which I enjoy immensely, and my writing schedule, I spend most of my time on the seat of my pants. Other than splitting wood, I’m still trying to come up with something challenging to do over the winter, which lasts about five months here in upstate New York. In the other seven months – spring, summer and fall – I like to bicycle. Now that I think on it, it was something Henry Miller also enjoyed in his later years. He once said his best friend was his bicycle, a bohemian-made track bike he bought from a six-day racer at Madison Square Garden.

Going back to your experience of drugs, do you think the artistic vision is enhanced or distorted by hallucinogens?

I don’t think it helps you be a better writer. For one thing, you have to know your craft, or vocation, to do it well. For another, whatever “creativity” consists of, it is, you might say, a drug in its own right, and mixing drugs is never a good idea. But it can be helpful in terms of perspective, and in moving from one place, or angle, to another, since that itself can catalyse new perceptions, ideas and thoughts. But so can travel or any number of things such as abruptly waking up at three in the morning and finding yourself in a sudden crisis.

What other things have then catalysed new way of seeing and thereby influenced your writing?

Good question. It makes me go back and catalogue what would be the most important influences in my life. Certainly, the psychedelic drug experience, and the bleak aftermath, which compelled me to begin anew, in many ways, some documented in the follow-up to I Think, Therefore Who Am I? called Digging Deeper. What I considered my “spiritual studies” had an effect, but also getting married which led to all sorts of realities, good and bad. The overall conclusion I arrived at can be boiled down to a quote by Michel de Montaigne who said: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself”.

Are all the characters in I Think, Therefore Who Am I? based on real people? Have you had any feedback from any of them?

Yes, they’re all real people: in both I Think, Therefore Who Am I? and Digging Deeper. I did meet some people from I Think, Therefore Who Am I? years later, but no, I haven’t had any feedback, except from one character who was of the opinion that everything we experienced back then was make-believe, worthless, and there was no reason to dwell on it. The epigraph to my memoir is a quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti who said: “The one true vocation for many is to find out what is real”. So you can imagine my incompatibility with my former acquaintance. In fact, I’m short on patience with people who insist on leading the unexamined life. So I didn’t try to reconnect with him again.

You recorded the time and milieu of late 60s New York with acute perception. I know you grew up in Queens, could you tell me a little bit about that, and how/if the city inspired you at all?

Where I grew up – one of the “outer boroughs” as they’re called – I could have been a hundred miles from what people think of as New York City, which is Manhattan Island. So I can’t say I was inspired by the city; I only knew it as my own uninspiring middle class neighbourhood. I was not entirely foreign to Manhattan, because I commuted to high school there from Queens for three years – an hour and a half each way – which made me familiar with the details and indignities of a more congested urban environment. And, like a tourist, I’d visited a few landmarks and gone to a few off-Broadway shows.

But finding myself on that Island after college, for the first time in my own apartment – in the East Village, a wonderful, motley neighbourhood of small bookstores and coffeehouses – was a wonder. I loved walking the streets, coming upon hidden nooks, the sense of a more adventurous life, even when I wasn’t participating in it except as an observer. But that alone, in contrast to my previous life, was a windfall to creativity, and in that sense the city did indeed inspire me.

Your memoir is set entirely in the realms of the city and among real people, yet the line between fiction and reality sometimes seems blurred. Is it something you set out to achieve?

No. In fact, my initial conception of the book was to tell my story as directly as possible, including the drug scenes, though the line between reality and fiction was difficult to discern at times. This was a challenge I attempted to meet with realistic description, dialogue, and a somewhat removed narrator who was, among other things, more ironic than his younger self. I wanted to capture a particular state of mind through my characterisations of others, as well as places and scenes. As George Orwell pointed out, truth is not absolute but a writer should strive to report what he thinks it is. In trying to capture the hyperawareness brought on by psychedelic drugs, however, I did couch my perceptions in mythic interpretation, which is not exactly real. My characters are themselves, but their qualities are redolent of gods and goddesses. As I noted at the end of one chapter: “The gods on Olympus had not been perfect. They were human, after all”.

You have clearly been influenced by various things, but do you credit any one writer with an influence on your literary tastes?

I guess I’d have to say Miller, for his anecdotal style. Louis-Ferdinand Céline for his stream of consciousness prose. I also like Orwell. Raymond Chandler and Ring Lardner taught me it was okay to be funny. For a while, I was taken with Albert Camus and to a somewhat lesser degree by Sartre, which encouraged me to be the existential writer I am, but with a dollop of irony that is entirely my own.

I did write to Miller once, when I was trying to get someone to take me seriously. I did that with several writers I admired, but he was the only one to respond. He did it in longhand on his own stationery, which had an inscription about the eels in the Sargasso Sea. I have it somewhere in my filing cabinet, and one of these days I’ll probably find it.

Miller always wrote about what he knew, do you think an artist’s “experience” has any weight on the quality of his work? Can one write good books about a subject he has no feeling for?

I suppose what you learn influences what you write, and I think you have to get “into” it to convey what you believe. But I don’t think our actual experiences have anything to do with whether we write well. Anyone can see more or less deeply into their own lives, whatever the content of those lives may be.

What is your concept of the creative process per se? Would you agree with Leo Tolstoy’s suggestion that writing is “the transmission of a feeling which the artist has experienced”?

I agree with that, but then I don’t write what would be considered fantasy. Although I do enter a trance of sorts while writing or at least the preliminary stage of it feels like that. The second stage, in my own process, consists of editing – finding more satisfying words or phrases to what was written in the trancelike, cathartic stage. Adding and / or subtracting sentences, paragraphs and ideas is all part of the writing process but I guess you probably know that.

Further Resources:
Dolly Delightly’s review of I Think, Therefore Who Am I?

Imaginary World: An Interview with Sade Adeniran

Nigerian author Sade Adeniran self-published her first novel, Imagine This, and went on to win the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel. She took time out from working on her second book to tell Mary-Claire Wilson how she did it, what inspires her and why she prefers Mills & Boon

Imagine a self-published book by an unknown writer which, through a grassroots word-of-mouth campaign, achieves international publication and widespread critical acclaim, is long listed by World Book Day, shortlisted on its Spread The Word campaign, and then goes on to win the 2008 Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel. Imagine This is that book.

Imagine This chronicles the life of Lola, from age nine to 19, through her journals. Lola, a motherless Nigerian girl raised in London, is left at the mercy of a series of resentful and superstitious relatives when her father suddenly whisks her and her brother back to Nigeria, and abandons her in his village in Idogun, without possessions, running water or electricity. As the refrain echoes through Lola’s moving journal entries, imagine that. Trapped, powerless and alone, Lola’s physical and emotional growth is stunted by a lack of food, love and attention. When as a teenager she finally escapes the village to live with relatives in the city, her trial continues as she faces the hatred of her uncles’ wives and children, struggles to get the education that will save her from ending up selling water at the roadside, and deals with the unwanted attentions of men and boys, while her own father, grown rich and powerful, ignores her.

Sade Adeniran, the book’s author, was herself taken back to Nigeria aged eight and left in her father’s village. Warm, calm and smiling in person, a million miles from Lola’s anguish, I have to ask, how much of the book is autobiographical? “I always say, ‘It is and it isn’t’. Some things in the book are based on real incidents. That village was where I grew up, but what happens to the character Lola is not what happened to me. My experience was not so much bad as a real culture shock. The restrictions that are placed on you there as a woman are extreme. I remember my aunt was sweeping outside after sundown and apparently that was some kind of taboo, so they had a ceremony and shaved her hair off. When you’ve grown up in the West, you just don’t see the logic in that.”

Lola’s story is set against the backdrop of a culture which, at least at first, is as alien and exotic to her as it would be to a Western reader. “And that’s one of the things that make the book interesting.” Sade points out. “Normally you read books about people coming from Nigeria to the UK and trying to integrate, but never the other way around, people going back home. When it came out a lot of people came up to me and said, ‘That is my story, that’s exactly what happened to me,’ the language difficulties, the misunderstandings.” Lola’s experience also rings true to me, as exactly that happened to my sister, who was moved from London to Nigeria when she was 12, and still remembers how her accent was ridiculed and how she was bullied for not speaking Igbo. “And then people [in Nigeria] think that you think you’re better than them, but you don’t, you’re just different,” continues Sade. At school, Lola is taunted to “Come and show us how this is done in the white man’s land,” and told that, “Just because you’ve been to the white man’s land doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else”. “I never even thought that,” Lola protests.

Lola gets knocked down and gets back up again and again through the book. “She’s brave!” Sade breaks into laughter, “She’s very brave and very resourceful. She’s kind of the person I wish I was. I write characters that I think I should either be like or I’m glad I’m not!” One of the proverbs that spring to mind reading Imagine This is ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, but in Lola’s case, this goes badly wrong. “I think it’s to do with Nigerian society as a whole,” Sade agrees. “It still goes on today, people in the village send their kids to relatives in the city because they hope that they’ll send them to school and all that, but they just get used as housemaids and dogsbodies. Then you’re obligated to them for life and they hold that over you and that’s just inherent in Nigerian culture. And you feel like you don’t have a voice, because you’re supposed to be grateful for the charity they’re giving you. But you’re actually being used. In Lolas’ case, although this isn’t spelled out in the book, her father isn’t able to cope with raising two kids after a failed marriage, which was also an arranged marriage.”

Sade's World website

The male characters in the book are absent, either literally or emotionally. “When I look at Nigerian men, although this generation is probably different, they see themselves as providers. They’re not emotional towards their kids. I’ve very rarely seen a Nigerian father hug their child. It’s just, ‘Go to school, I’ll pay your fees, here’s food’. There’s no investment in the emotional wellbeing of the child.” Given Sade’s take on Nigerian society, how was the book received inside Nigeria? “On the whole I would say that those who read it gave really positive feedback. At the University of Abuja the lecturer who introduced me gave the impression it was really negative about Nigeria, so I had to keep on saying, it’s not about putting Nigeria in a negative light, it’s about how Lola experienced it. There are so many negative images about Nigeria out there, and people think of 419 [as internet fraud is known in Nigeria] and theft and killings, but you could say the same about any country. Even here, you turn on the news and someone’s been murdered somewhere and there are guns. Every country has a negative underbelly, but because people see Africa as the ‘Dark Continent’, they never see the positive side. I would want to portray it in a positive light, but it doesn’t always happen like that. Whatever country or family or society you’re in, it will have something darker underlying it.”

Imagine This started out as a very different book. Believe it or not, it began as a revenge fantasy. “It did!” Sade exclaims. I was made redundant with no warning from my job on January 2nd, and my boss let me work the whole day, then at the end called me into his office and let me go. I went home, cried a lot, and wished I could do all sorts of horrible things to him. And that was how the book started.” What changed it? “I wrote about a hundred pages and realised it was rubbish. But I had these diary entries of Lola’s back story which intrigued me.”

The diary form of the novel gives it vibrancy and immediacy, because Sade manages to capture the voice of a nine-year-old girl, and then teenager, authentically. “It’s from listening to my nieces and the way that they speak and the way that they think. Because kids think differently. We forget that. In the beginning when Lola’s still at school, one thing that’s captured is the way that kids misunderstand meaning. They don’t realise there’s a deeper meaning to words.” In the book there’s an incident where the Principal advices the morning assembly that any girl who keeps her legs open will be expelled. Lola, determined to be expelled, takes to sitting with her knees wide apart.

The strength and individuality of Lola’s voice makes it hard to discern Sade’s literary influences. ”I can’t really pinpoint anyone. My tastes are very eclectic. I read Mills & Boons as well as serious literature. Though I prefer the Mills & Boons I have to say!” Sade laughs, “When I don’t want to think anyway. Even though I’m yet to read a Mills & Boon that has a black character in it. I don’t think of myself as a literary writer. Literary to me means heavy tomes that no one wants to read. I’m a general fiction writer.” Imagine This falls into the category of contemporary literary fiction, which is more diverse than the Great White Canon of old.

Lola’s journal is rich in African proverbs, which as she grows up she begins to comprehend. Rather than chapter titles, each section is headed by a proverb related to events in it. Sade explains, “My father loved proverbs. He used to write them for me. Actually some of the proverbs are from the play The Gods Are Not To Blame by Ola Rotimi. It’s a twist on the Oedipus story. That’s one of my influences.” The proverb that opens the book reads, ‘The spirit that keeps one going when one has no choice of what else to do must not be mistaken for valour’. This applies to Lolas’ situation, but does it also apply to Sades’ decision to self-publish? “If I had known the stigma attached to self-publishing, I’m not sure I would have done it. The Commonwealth Prize took the book to a different level. People ask me if they should self-publish, and I say, yes, if you believe in your book. I believed in Imagine This. I was quite naive, because I thought all I had to do was print it and take it into Waterstones and they’d put it on the shelf, not realising there was a whole industry behind the distribution of books. The scariest thing for me was doing the promoting, because I’m not an out-going person, so picking up the phone was tough. A bookshop, Crockatt & Powell, wrote a blog denouncing self-published books, and I called them and convinced them to take two copies, which they sold that same day. They read it, then wrote another blog saying, we were wrong, not all self-published books are bad. So that’s how I started to get it into shops. Though I still have books under my bed to get rid of! The attitude to self-publishing has changed now though. It’s much more acceptable.”

Sade studied English and Media at university, writing a radio play for her dissertation that was accepted and aired by the BBC. Since then she’s worked in technical and business consultancy and project management. What drew her to writing? “I guess because I just could! I’m not an articulate person on a one to one when I’m speaking to people. When I was growing up, my dad and I didn’t get on at all. I’d try and talk to him and I felt like he didn’t listen to me, so I started writing him letters and slipping them under his door. He always read them and things would get better after that. That was my first experience expressing myself through writing.”

Imagine This was published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic, one of the few publishing houses that exist there. “Nigeria’s a tough market. There’s no distribution. There are hardly any bookshops, though that’s starting to change. I’ve never seen a library in Nigeria. When I was growing up I remember buying books on the roadside. They [Cassava Republic] are not doing it to get rich, they’re doing it because they love books. It’s tough for them. We have to encourage the culture of reading from a young age. You’re expected to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. But after you’ve built the bridges and the roads, it’s art that you need to adorn the walls. Being a writer isn’t seen as something to aspire to. We need to change that perception at the grassroots.”

It goes without saying that there’s a lot that needs changing in Nigeria. Lola speculates ‘We should have a woman as President. She’ll knock the country into shape.’ Unfortunately, as Sade says, “As a woman in Nigeria if you don’t have a man next to you, you’re nothing. I think that’s why there are so many bad marriages there. My Dad started off saying, ‘Don’t marry a Jamaican or a white man or an Igbo man,’ which basically left me with just a man from Idogun! Then over the years it became, ‘Ok, maybe you can marry a Jamaican or a white man’, then it became, ‘Just get married! I don’t care who! Marry anyone!’” Sade giggles. What does she think would get Nigeria into shape? “Just one honest person,” Sade sighs, “Just one. But the corrupt people outnumber the honest. The corruption is so endemic and starts at the top and goes all the way to the bottom. Everyone must take a piece. And I see the children of the politicians in the UK spending money like it’s going out of fashion, living in Mayfair or Belsize Park, and I think, you didn’t earn this. There are people suffering and they just take, take, take. Nigerians have no long-term vision. The politicians don’t build the hospitals. When they get sick, where are they going to go? Anyone can have an accident. We don’t have any facilities for emergency medical care. We don’t have ambulances, nothing. And the politicians own more houses than anyone can live in.”

Sade is based in London now, but visits Nigeria regularly. After a childhood spent moving between both, is she a Nigerian or a Londoner? “When I’m in England I’m British and when I’m in Nigeria I’m Nigerian. I said that at a reading in Nigeria and it caused a big brouhaha. But that’s how I feel.” What’s she working on at the moment? “Whenever I start talking about something I’m working on, it just becomes talk, and I never actually write it. All the energy dissipates.”

Although there are plans for a sequel to Imagine This, entitled Imagine That, for the moment Sade is still surprised by the reactions she receives to her first novel from a diverse range of readers. She describes attending a book club in Manchester run by the blue rinse brigade, and how much they loved Lola’s journey and related to her character, although their two worlds couldn’t be further apart. “At one of the school I visited,” Sade tells me, “This blue-eyed, blonde haired teenager came up to me and said, ‘Miss, Miss, this is my life!’ When an ordinary reader comes up and says, ‘I get it,’ it’s more gratifying and humbling than any accolade. I guess that’s why I write.” That, I can imagine.

Further Resources:

Reflections On An Omnivorous Visualization System: An Interview With Matthew Ritchie

This dialogue between Matthew Ritchie and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve first appeared in the catalogue for the artist’s exhibition Proposition Player, organized by Lynn M. Herbert, December 12, 2003-March 14, 2004, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in association with Hatje Cantz Publications

Many thanks to Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for permission to republish

I always thought the best magic tricks were the ones you knew how they worked but, the trick was so perfect you still couldn’t help believing it. There are seven kinds of magic trick. the disappearance, the production, the transformation, the mentalist, demonstration, the anti-scientific demonstration, penetration, and the transportation. Now imagine if one trick did them all at once.
– Matthew Ritchie, 2003

As the story goes, I’d like to begin with a brief history of the project. How did it all begin?

In 1995, after many years of working as a building superintendent and not really making art, I got started again by making a list, and then the list turned into a map, and the map turned into a story, and then the story turned into a game. Since then I have typically worked episodically, through a series of site-specific projects that cumulatively described elements of a system or, more accurately, a way of working. I think this accumulation sometimes created the illusion of a progression, with a hierarchy of meaning. But it turns out that impression is even less than half the story. This show is a good time for me to evaluate the truth of that first impression and how closely it is related both to the true intentions of the work and to the physical forms it has taken on over time.

What was the initial list?

It was a list of everything I was interested in. It was grouped as forty-nine categories arranged in a grid of seven by seven, things like solitude, color, DNA, sex, everything I could think of. Each element on the list was represented in seven ways: as a scientific function, a theological function, a narrative function, a color, a form, a dynamic function, and finally through a personal, hidden meaning. But once they started crossing over from their little boxes, which happened immediately, that’s when it turned into a map, like a place, as if all the elements had become little cities one would like to visit. And then it became a story, almost automatically.

What was the function of the forty-nine characteristics? I mean, ultimately, what were you trying to get at?

The forty-nine characteristics were originally an attempt to simply represent the conditions of any system. Light, color, mass, space, time, etc. are aspects shared by painting with any cosmology or any representation of the universe. The many shows that followed were an exploration of the possibility of building consensus, or form, from contradictory narratives. Cape Canaveral and Morris Lapidus for Miami, the Brockton Holiday Inn and glacier climbing in Svalbard for the shows in [respectively] Boston and Oslo, the geological oddity of the Seven Cities for a show in São Paulo. Each show added physical details to the overall information architecture, trying to extend the idea of an open system to the physical form of the work.

The more I’ve looked at and thought about your work, the more it has become about manifesting structures of information and the information age, not just about painting. Or better, you’re using the medium of painting not to represent the issues and ideas of the information age but to translate them into another order, an order that is physical, where, as you put it, everything is there all at once.

I want to be able to see everything. It’s a fathomless desire, a weakness and a strength. But to do such a thing, you have to turn information into a physical form.

Which is so interesting because one of the most dramatic distinctions between the information age and the pre-information age is the increasing invisibility and non-physical form of things, like subway tokens becoming metro cards; coins and paper, credit, and ATMs; films into digital streams, etc.

Yes, so we need to make a visual metaphor for all the things we cannot see. I grew up with the information age. When I was in high school a digital watch was a rare trophy. Now a tidal wave of information engulfs us. They have just introduced a unit of measure that calculates planetary information flow. More information was exchanged in the last five years than in all human history. How do we deal with all this? How do we create a meaningful information environment? How can we learn to see information as form? I’ve always been interested in this idea of anthropomorphizing information and have wanted to use painting to prove one of the fundamental premises of information theory, that any sufficiently complex system will acquire its own internal meaning. Not only can you see all of it, but it can see all of you. I have also wanted to see if I could introduce certain fixed relationships into painting that would allow it to acquire the status of language. Then maybe this thing could talk back. I don’t know much about linguistics, but once I came across a list of the properties of language, and painting has all but one.

Which is?

Intertranslatability. It fascinated me that painting could be considered mute. In language the word “blue” can be translated into any language and will still always mean “blue”. But in painting there is no way to translate Picasso’s blue or El Greco’s blue from painting to painting. Pigments can’t be translated; they are specific, never general, never translatable.

In 1997, in an interview with Jennifer Berman for BOMB, you said, “… there are a lot of artists… who are doing work that I feel close to, and it evolves around ideas of treating art as language, and consequently inventing narratives, but not in some sixties way…” [Matthew Ritchie, quoted in interview by Jennifer Berman, BOMB Spring 1997, p.64.] Could you elaborate on that?

I guess what I was getting at is any discussion of my personal narrative must be closely linked to the personalized global practices that emerged in 1995-2000, where cosmologies and mythologies were a common tool for artists as divergent as Liam Gillick, Gregor Schneider, Manfred Pernice, Andrea Zittel, Kara Walker, and of course Matthew Barney and his Yale classmates Katy Schimert, Michael Grey, and Michael Rees. Shows generated by these artists and others often used complex titling and installation strategies like books, super-graphics, and implied narratives as part of their fundamental structure. The overall effect was a collection of closed worlds, a house of doors. I was very interested in the possibilities this opened up, and after the collapse of the master narratives in the eighties, it seemed inevitable that artists would turn to a self-contained practice again. Typical of these projects was an implication of a larger vision, which underlay any given project. My own project was established both to take advantage of that desire and simultaneously to counter it. I created narrative structures which manifested themselves as a nonhierarchical game space, a magic square, open to multiple contradictory readings and based on an open source material from subgenres commonly relegated to the backwaters of historical curiosity, such as Gnostic angelology, unified field theory, conspiracy theories of all stripes, creation debates, and evolutionary arguments – in short, every field where the desire for a universal taxonomy, a context outside all contexts, had outweighed truth, proof, or consensus. My project was hopefully a generous construction of arguments that was always intended to be impossible to be read as any kind of closed Wagnerian master myth and to be more a kind of open, porous toolkit for thinking.

Unlike Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, which is often described as Wagnerian.

Barney was among the first artists of my generation who was not worried by his desire to include everything he wanted into his art. I had seen the work of [Robert] Rauschenberg, [Joseph] Beuys and [Sigmar] Polke and found them similarly freeing, but somehow that moment seemed lost to my generation. That was what I thought was so liberating about the early nineties: everyone seemed to say, “I’m interested in all this stuff and I’ll do it all at once, from Rikrit Tiravanija’s cooking to Andrea Zittel’s habitats. And that was fantastic. I was never attracted to this idea that art was somehow under siege or that preserving ideas of conservative technique was some kind of resistance. Nor did the myth of infinite progression seem particularly truthful either. I think something much more interesting has happened since then. An enormous space has opened up where we can see the possibility of these radicalized, spectacularized individual projects to change and evolve, to escape from the cultic and predictable obligations of art historical expectations. Instead of accepting a relationship to the Wagnerian model, which is based on the the model of traditional cult worship, I think we should be thinking about Milton, whose work was based on ideas of intellectual honesty, individual freedom, and responsibility. The ubiquity of cheap, low-res technology allows every artist to become their own NASA.

In other words, for me, the original idea that any sufficiently complex system would acquire its own internal meaning (information theory) has mutated into an omnivorous visualization system constantly generating multiple meanings. This system is not really being generated by me; it is a story by, for, and about everyone and everything. And so, without either falling or concluding as scheduled, my project has taken on an internal life. It has escaped. The separate characters have become highly individualized characters, places, landscapes, and organs, all competing and dreaming in an endless conceptual war consisting of endless victories for all. None of the work in the current show corresponds to the initial table of characteristics, colors, names, or functions. Instead the works all contain multiple and polluted variants and offspring of the original structure. One way to describe what I am doing is I am trying to describe and include what cannot be systematized. The classic regressions of [Bertrand] Russell’s set of all sets, or the Binding Problem, or the question of a priori consciousness, or the origin of source material for the Big Band, are all ultimately about asking what can and cannot be known. They are outside context questions.

What do you mean by “outside context questions”?

How can we perceive the structure that contains the model of our perception?

Do you think you have successfully given back to painting the idea of translatability? If so, isn’t it only within your system?

I think I have sort of, but the result has turned out to be a kind of conjuring trick with only one useful function: to show that all language requires an internal consistency, not only to function but to have integrity.

Does critique enter into your work? Is that even a relevant question? Or desire to get out of your work?

Could you expand on that a little?

About critique? What I mean by that?

Yeah.

The belief that art is less about creativity than it is about questioning art, society, power, money, master narratives. I came out of that tradition through academia and the Whitney program in the 1980s. But the more I got to know and write about art in the ‘90s after I left academia, the more narrow that view became, which is why Barney’s, yours, or Ellen Gallagher’s work became of such interest to me. In this more generative kind of work, critique is not the impetus so much as generating new systems. Creativity returns but through the lens of a very diffracted (post-Derridean / Haraway) space.

It’s an interesting question because the third thing I was interested in at the beginning of this project was the idea of the Ius Utendi, the model of law proposed by William of Ockham (one of the first proponents of intellectual freedom), which concerns the structures and questions that underly any self-critical, self-sustaining, open game of thought.

How has he appeared in your work?

Well Ockham is most famous for Ockham’s razor, a deductive mental tool.

Which is?

The simplest solution is the likeliest one. But determining the simplest solution requires an understanding of the entire context. In Ockham’s time, the simplest solution was to assume God was responsible for everything from wood floating on water to the motion of the planets. But that led to heresy because it conflicted with the idea of free will and to idiocy because the basic laws of observable science were constantly being challenged by this idea that they were “against the will of God”. It’s the same kind of thinking that opposes stem cell research today.

But Ockham is most interesting as an example of the power and limits of logical thinking – what you could call critique. He single-handedly challenged the rights and limits of the papacy at a time when it was the unchallenged arbiter not only of the present, but of the spiritual future of every Christian. He won through the force of logic on what he called the “right to use”, the belief that each of us has both rights and responsibilities that no larger structure can mediate for us. In short, he presents the individual as a moral ecology. Real critique must begin with an understanding of the entire system and one’s personal relationship to it.

Okay, so now I’ll come in from that other side. Your generation’s reliance on baroque internal myths, or even baroque public myths (science) in your case, has been interpreted as this kind of irresponsible system, because you could be interpreted as saying, “Well, everything is meaningful and everywhere, and it can go anywhere”. If that’s the case, then nothing means anything, and everything’s up for grabs, and it’s that awful postmodernism stuff, right?

Well, science is hardly a myth and like any truly complex system, it demands internal integrity. But I usually get asked the opposite question instead.

Which is?

“Why do we even have to know what it means?” I’ve heard that thousands of times. Most people don’t want to know that there’s an internal architecture, or background information, and that it all holds together.

That’s so depressing. Why can’t people understand that this is what makes the art so interesting. Certainly it’s what is strong and breathtaking about yours and Barney’s.

The criticism of the complexity is based on this unfortunate idea that we in the visual arts should be afraid to make big, beautiful, complex things in case we somehow “alienate” a frightened and timid potential audience. I do not underestimate the audience in that way. It’s so odd. The same people that worry about contemporary art in this way are completely unafraid of the Sistine Chapel, or The Matrix, or jet planes, which are much more complicated. Part of the premise of this show was the idea of shared and lost information, so to make the heads for The Fine Constant, I worked with ten-year-olds in Houston and New York, and they were not alienated by the complexity; they embraced it. They were less confused than anyone I worked with. So I think any audience can and will rise to the challenge of complex work as long as they feel they can trust the artist’s integrity. This is the most important thing, because only an internal integrity can guarantee an implicit order than transcends these kinds of questions.

That’s excellent.

There are also big differences between the various types of work that suffer from the criticism of complexity or hermeticism. You are the Barney scholar here, but it seems to me his work is based on the idea of constructing a mythology that builds upon itself. He’s forcing a kind of concentration on the viewer. Someone like Beuys was interested in placing himself at the center of a postwar absence, and his meaningful system was a conduit with himself as the social lubricant. Kara Walker, on the other hand, seems to be more interested in an epic David Lean-like portrayal that focuses less on one individual than on articulating the giant voice of moral betrayal. Whereas what I’m interested in is an opening up of consciousness, a reversion, a reversal, so that what happens to viewers is they think about things from the outside through the context. Information becomes the material, the form. So I see the paintings and all the things that I’m making as parts of something like a telescope. I’m trying to create a class of objects whose main property is that they turn the viewer’s consciousness back out. All the information in my work can be found in the public realm, on the internet or in any public library, but what I try to deliver is the idea of personal intellectual freedom, the right to think any thought on any scale.

In previous interviews you talk about how important it is that the systems you are exploring are real, i.e., part of the public or social order. The abstract, self-made, total fantasy system of the Cremaster is your exact opposite. You start with the rules in the universe that determine us as a game and watch the story grow.

Yes, we are all an expression of the game. We are part of a particular spread of cards, and those cards are going to be reshuffled tomorrow and the day after. This is the hand you’ve been dealt, so it’s up to you to make a story out of the random insane collection of things that are happening to you right now.

It seems like your story of life has an awful lot to do with rules, doesn’t it? Would you say, for you, rules are almost the primary material?

Wow, that’s a really rich question. Especially since a good part of my life was about circumventing rules. [Laughing.] And I’d really like them to answer it for you. [Ritchie hands her “The Rules of the Game”.]

Are you kidding?

No. You are right – the relationship between the rules and the information, between signal and noise, is the question. It’s the question for everything. Not just for art making, but life. Life is about rules. You can say you “don’t want to learn”, but you have to learn about gravity. You have to learn about food and water, and then you have to learn about social life to keep getting food and water. The rules that we tend to think are the most important end up being, in the larger picture, nothing compared to the fundamental rules in your own life. Like when you will die. The whole point about rules is that they are what allow you to play the game. But just because you know the rules doesn’t mean the game is any more predictable, or any less fun, or any less absorbing. You know you’re going to win and lose, and that’s what counts.

Most rules aren’t about learning, just obeying. One doesn’t have to understand or even know about gravity, but one does have to obey it.

Yeah, that is certainly what we have been told. But who told you that, and why? The new show is very much about this. Like, in the end, is a story really more about its rules? Is it all about the setup? Or can we look at all the rules at once?

Of any one moment in time, a person – or anything? Why is that important? What does one get by seeing all the rules at once?

Everything. All those rules are conspiring in a nonhierarchical space, where everything is potentially observable at the same time. Maybe the rules are just another way of asking what will happen next?

Which is the fundamental structure or definition or narrative. But what you are talking about is more about breaking through all the dimensions and seeing everything at once. Maybe it’s the word “rules” that throws me. Is there another word for what you’re talking about?

Yes, there are lots because I don’t even think what I’m interested in is about “rules” in the narrow sense. I’m really looking at the fundamental properties in nature (that are sometimes called constants) that underlie everything. Laws tend to express the relationships of constants. But the other thing that’s specifically interesting to me, in terms of what you’re asking about, is that every individual person is building his or her own information mass, and although each mass is derived from the laws underlying most of the universe, everybody becomes their own set of dice – or their own pack of cards. We are all making our own rules – in defiance of the underlying ones.

The difference between the pre-information age and post is precisely this issue of pen access to “all” knowledge. We suffer from what William Gibson calls “information sickness”. Survival, of the fittest is no longer who is the one who knows everything, because everybody can do that to some extent via the internet and technology. But power or success or achievement or breakthrough comes form the ingenuity in how one makes sense of the information. In your model, it is what roll of the dice or division of cards each person develops.

Yes, when you have a new experience, the hippocampus actually rebuilds itself. Information, new information, literally makes the brain change shape. They’ve been doing these studies recently with monks that show the alpha brain waves calm down during meditation. The hippocampus actually changes shape. Buddhist monks and people who don’t meditate have brains that actually work differently. It’s actually a physical change. So every day we’re making a map of our life in our brain. We’re doing what we’re talking about in a very abstract way, processing everything into a physical object, inside our heads, every day.

So one can look at your work as much as a kind of map of the brain, and not just the idea of the universe and the cosmos? You put it beautifully in 1997 in the Jennifer Berman interview: “… you’ve got hundreds of competing impulses – your skin is itching, you’re responding to pressures and thoughts of your age, your body is deteriorating, you’re going to the gym. It’s a mess. This temple of activity. This hive. The heart’s beating, you can hear it ticking in the back of your mind. And your brain, god knows what’s going on in there. No one’s even close to figuring that out. And so this is an attempt to try and map what it is like to be a person”.

Yeah.

Have you ever experienced the sense of your brain growing?

Oh, God, yeah! And not just taking drugs. If you pay attention, you can feel it all the time.

But isn’t that amazing? I remember the point when I felt my brain matter growing. There was this feeling, literally, of more stuff going in and growing, and I could understand things I couldn’t before.

Yeah, that’s amazing. And then the real trick is you’ve got to figure out a shape for it all. Like will the form the information takes become a useful tool – like a personal cosmology – or more important, can you make it into something you can use or at least tolerate?

Tolerate is an interesting word. It’s about finding a level we can tolerate in the sense of a threshold we make, manage, and use. Otherwise information saturation becomes painful, and as Gibson says, we get sick. Is that what your paintings do? Are they ways of tolerating information overload?

I think so. Raw information has the ability to cause real disorientation. Information has to be cooked. The paintings are a kind of immune system; literally pictures of thinking.

Like what hydrogen actually looks like if it turns into knowledge?

Yes.

And yet, color and line are your vocabulary. Color’s the most important element, in a way, right? Are there specific associations with each color?

Well, originally there were seven colors with very specific hues that were in fact directly related to certain ideas I had about color theory. But then as they started to bleed and cross-mingle and procreate with each other, it was like all these children emerged. Children in the form of really dirty colors. But in truth, I would say that formally the paintings rely as much on the idea of “fill” as they do in color.

Territories.

Yes, in a way this goes back to the map and to the problem of how to contain or shape information. There’s actually a mechanical model of how much information one can contain in a space, based on the number of colors and how dense they are. It’s why maps look the way they do. They’re not brightly colored all over because, if so, you wouldn’t be able to look at and read them anymore. So when I was figuring out how to make these paintings, I had all these books on color. There was this book called Envisioning Information, which is very famous. It is all about how to make good and bad models for presenting information.

And yours, are they good or bad models?

I think mine are terrible models. [Laughter.]

Now why is that? Why would that be more compelling for you than doing “good” models?

Well, a “good” model for information is one where it’s totally legible to any person, for instance, a train schedule. Such models shouldn’t be confusing but completely ordered.

So, good models for presenting information are by definition not very interesting art. If so, where does your work stand? Or why work within these boundaries, which seem to contradict one another? What I’m getting at is, you seem caught between representing or modelling information via painting and making art. Art and information seem to be totally at odds, and yet those are the two things you are working with!

Well, a train schedule is very limited – its presentation of order relies on the absence of all other information. The real world is also a terrible model for presenting important information since it includes everything. But this project, as it stands in the Houston show, represents a kind of crisis, climax, or collapse of the earlier way of working precisely because of this conflict. For me this is an attempt to take advantage of the energy released as the first wave generated in 1995 comes crashing down. From this conflict, an alternate ecology, an ecology of information, has emerged, casting spaces against time, matter, energy. This ecology, rather than the initial rules, has emerged from inside the whole project. Rather than an episodic recapitulation of previous stories and structures, this show seeks to collapse all the categories, characters, and stories into one moment – a moment where the viewer can enter and begin to play the game him or herself. This entire show was also built around the idea of participation from the very beginning, not only from the side of the viewer, but also from the side of the maker. I wanted to explore how information as a material could be scaled and worked with by different kinds of collaborators using different technologies. I wanted to see how much could be lost and then regained as I scaled the different elements. So I worked with a totally diverse team of collaborators around the country who were each making a component, like the programmer making the game in California, or mold makers casting dice from prehistoric elk bones at the American Museum of Natural History, or ten-year-old children making the heads in Houston from Sculpy, or the water-jet cutter putting the sculpture together in his barn. I wanted part of the process to be about breaking this system of mine into parts and surrendering it to chance in the hands of others. This way the idea of a scalable language could really be tested out in practice. And their independent decisions ended up directly influencing the paintings and drawings, returning me to this idea of an endlessly opening, collapsing and infinitely generous structure. In terms of the viewers’ experience too, I have made it participatory. For instance, there is an interactive digital craps game, and there’s this pack of cards that I’m making. It’s a pack of all the characters, the forty-nine characters. So everyone who comes can play the game. [Ritchie pulls out a pack of cards.]

You have the pack of fifty-two most wanted Iraqi cards. Wait, this is your color – these are your colors?!

No, these are the US government colors.

Give me a break!

Funny, that is. [Laughs.]

So, you did dodge the question about the meaning of your color scheme, because there is a kind of army green throughout your world of color.

No, it’s just coincidence.

It’s just a coincidence?

People use these colors because they’re heavy on white. They’re cheap.

Okay, so talk about your craps game and cards. How do they function in the show?

You come into the show and are given a playing card with a character on it. But the show is not about all the characters. It’s not like they’re all over the walls or anything. There are also four suits in a pack of cards. So, now you’ve got forty-nine characters, and they’re divided into seven families each, and then they’re divided into four suits, which splits them up into their functionality. And the four suits represent the basic forces of the universe. (Which, by the way, were never included in the original seven families or the basic characters or properties, because I didn’t know enough to include them. Thank goodness.) So now, literally, these characters build the stories, but the stories are only a superstructure placed on top of the underlying structure, which is these four basic forces of the universe, and they then build through the craps game into a central figure, “the swimmer,” that ties everything together.

You mean these forces are undeniable?

We describe the universe through four forces that make up everything. The Weak Force, which is radiation, the Strong Force, which holds atoms together, Gravity, which holds the universe together, and Electromagnetism – most commonly understood as light.

Is that four because there are only four? Or have you chosen just four?

No, I hardly ever need to make anything up. There really are four forces that combine to make everything, including the four constants represented here: e = the elementary charge, c = the speed of light, G = the constant of gravity, and h = the constant of actio. For this book we made those letters each of of the four colors.

So according to Big Science, there are four?

You’re having a hard time with this aren’t you. Well, the theory is that they were all once one force – before the Big Bang, but there are lots more fours, just as there were lots of sevens when I needed them. You know, four seasons, four directions of the compass, four suits of cards. They’re all actually dependent on each other. The four forces also generate the four fixed units of measurement. So they’re all completely contingent on each other.

So, how does all of this work in your show?

The viewer walks in, gets one of these cards and then gives it to a guy at the gaming table. He then gives them the digital dice, which are four-sided dice cast from prehistoric animal bones, and then they play the digital craps game. And as they play the game they build the paintings.

Literally? During the show? How does that happen? Where’s “the painter”, meaning you? And why are the dice prehistoric animal bones?

The first dice ever used were astragals – ankle bones of a cloven hoofed animal. They are four-sided and were what were first used as dice, so in this case they’re cast from prehistoric giant elk ankle bones. They have four sides. One dice has four numbers and one has the four symbols of the suits: spades, clubs, hearts, diamonds – and they’re colored. Blue is spades, green is clubs, and so on.

I also made a one-person craps table that serves as a projection surface. You throw the dice onto the table and they have tiny computers inside them that register what you throw and send a radio signal to a computer above. The computer then builds and projects random animated elements from a digital game onto the surface of the table, depending on your score. The evolution of the game resembles the main sequence of the paintings. Another version of the game, based on the same dice throw but using the random quality of the game to build a different image, is being projected on the wall as you play.

The game has five levels, because it’s also based on the voodoo universe, which has five levels and because voodoo is the only chance-based religion that I could come across.

This is all sounding like mad associative ranting.

And yet this is how I think. In voodoo you pray to a certain kind of god, but you might get another god coming in and at you. It’s also the only one where the universe invests itself in you, rather than you having to pray to it; it’s an inverted religion. And it’s sort of related to Christianity, which is something that I think is a legitimate context for me, if you do all these strange things in the gaming room, alternate versions of the structures of the paintings will build themselves in front of you each time.

How does one win?

Winning has to do with acquiring enough light and gravity and mass to get to the next level. It’s really just about play.

What if the first person who comes in ends up playing the whole time the show’s up?

Well, that’s great! But there is an end to it. Proposition Player goes through five stages, evolving from the first diagram, which is the underlying structure of the universe, to a painting, which is the evolution of atoms, and then, at the end, a figure emerges out of all of them, built out of the same parts.

Is there another metaphor besides “game” that works for you?

I think “life” is a good metaphor. [Laughs.] Or going back to the word I used before: “context”. Because all rules are interdependent on each other, they build a context. Light is dependent on nuclear fusion, which is dependent on the space / time structure of the universe, which is dependent on gravity. In other words, everything is linked together in a chain, in a context, which is the game. The game is much more than just the rules of the game. It’s the whole thing. If you talk out one part, one rule, the whole game collapses. So if that happens, how do you represent the context?

Like an organism. Is context another name for history?

The real context is the structure that contains the model of our perception that we think is the context – it is the framework that allows the rules of the game to be rule. So, how do you step outside a context that includes everything? This is the thing that I’m always talking about. it is the defining problem: context as theory. How do you represent the presence of the defining absence?

Defining absence, there’s a great definition of God. In a way for you to talk about history is off the mark because history, as a system for making sense of events of experience, is really just another kind of perception?

We can only see 5% of the universe. We’ve called another 25% “dark energy” and the remaining 70% “dark matter”. We’re working from a model with 95% of the information missing – so no wonder everybody’s acting like they’re in the dark. So the big question for me is: how do you visually represent that absence?

In The Fine Constant, each of the heads is based on a sculpture made by a ten-year-old in Houston who participated in a workshop based on my stories. The heads were decimated by a computer: we scanned the original head, turned it into polygons and reduced the polygons by 95%. This whole fabrication process was intended to represent the radical and persistent information loss that characterizes human experience and to show how in a way, it doesn’t matter.

Yikes!

And despite the fact that these heads derive from a story told to a child, who made a sculpture of the story that was then reduced by 95% in detail and then cast – we still have enough to understand it as a head! So the universe is still legible. It’s still working for you, even when you can only see 5% of what is there. But truthfully, as human beings, we can probably only even grasp about 5% of that visible universe. So we discard another 95% and make our daily decisions based on 5% of the available information we have left and yet we still feel the rightness of it all. Even though we’re only able to see only one quarter of one percent, we still feel we are connected to the underlying order. We can go further and further down in resolution, but as long as the underlying grain remains true, we can be convinced we are connected to the whole – we can ignore the overwhelming absence.

Sounds like the Bush administration.

But it’s how all of our information is produced. It’s like, how can you think about your own consciousness from outside your brain? I was making yet more Sculpy heads at a charity event and another ten-year-old came up to me during the workshop and said, “I want to make a model of the universe.” And I though, “Did someone send you to me? Is this a setup? You know, Candid Camera?” And then she said, “No, okay, the universe is too big. Let’s make the solar system.” And I was like, “Okay – phew!” And then she said, “But what does the universe look like anyway?” And all I could say was, “Good question.” I mean, isn’t that it? There she was, age ten, standing outside the universe going, “And so, what does this look like? How can I put it altogether all at once?”

And to her it wasn’t a game.

No, to her it was just like, life.

Giving and Taking: Arts Funding and Philanthropy

In the wake of this month’s funding announcements by the Arts Council of England, Joseph Spencer offer an American perspective on the philanthropic model for the arts

As the arts in Britain undergo significant changes to their funding structures, debates are sparking up as to alternatives that could save the hundreds of galleries, orchestras, theater companies, music academies, and dance theatres that rely on the government, at least in part, for their funding. With the recent enforced cuts of up to 15% the head of the Arts Council England (ACE), Liz Forgan has been expressing her regrets in the press. The ACE is the decision maker when it comes to who receives, or does not receive continued or new funding from the British Government. In several articles Mrs Forgan has been quoted as stating how difficult the decisions have been.

One of the decisions that has made some art and culture aficionados in London and the surrounding areas ripe with ire, is the now common practice of the ACE that instead of reducing all participating organizations’ budget by 15% according to the originally proposed method, they have controversially enacted selective grant endowments that pit arts organizations in a battle for funding in order to survive. The process smacks of entitlement and favoritism with artists, institutions and supporters alike. Although there are no blatant examples to be held up at this time, the system through which one would apply for entitlements and funding seems an easily corruptible one. While the procedure used to select those companies, orchestras, groups and individuals is not inherently biased, it is thought by many that special consideration will be given to those that could be favored by the Council.

According to Art Council England’s disclosures they have received 1,350 applications to date, worth close to £1.5 billion (GBP) or ($2.449 billion USD) with a budget of £950 million (GBP) the Arts Council England has had to reject or alter funding, and in some cases the effect has been dramatic. Poetry Book Society (PBS) has responded harshly. They have been subject to a complete withdrawal of all funding by the Council. Being one of the most prestigious and respected poetry societies in the world, they have enjoyed a steady funding source for decades. However, with the already strained financial situation in Britain, the British Government by way of British Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, and the ACE decided to relinquish all monetary support. This move lends credence to the idea that selective funding attrition, rather than an across the board reduction of 10% to 15% in funds, is not only biased and unfair but culturally destructive. The result of which is the loss of integral parts of the social and cultural landscape in Britain.

In America the arts are primarily supported through philanthropic endowments. There are some funding parameters that are defined through government subsidies such as the Public Broadcasting Networks. However, they are jointly funded through viewer contributions. One specific source for raising capital is the annual pledge drives every year in which businesses that are in the region of a designated Public Broadcasting Station, donate discounted service packages, and/or product bundles that callers to the pledge drive can ‘bid’ on incrementally so as to get maximum returns for the station holding the drive.

Kari Robertson is the President of North Country Arts Council (NCAC) an American education and advocacy non-profit organization encompassing music, theatre, dance, literary arts, visual arts, and crafts. When asked what advantages, if any, are there to a philanthropic funding structure as opposed to a state, Mrs Robertson responded, “One advantage that has been repeatedly expressed to me in conversations with many members of our art community is the fact that we do not have the tight regulatory policies of state sponsored art programs, such as those in some Asian countries”.

In order to justify expenditures, organizations that manage financial aspects for the arts – acquiring a majority of their funding from government grants or endowments – must keep detailed and intricate files accounting for each and every transaction. Often these files must be arranged in triplicate form with only upper management signatures allowed as authorization. This often creates a situation where artists are hindered in their creative process. It can be the case that they are restricted to certain expenses which deprives them of needed materials. It can also be the case that managerial staff and artistic members have very different priorities when concerning what is vital and what is not.

Culturally speaking, the more free and unfettered an artist is, be it in dance, theater, music or literary, generally the better the outcome for observer and performer. This is sometimes made more difficult when the artist is bound by regulation or policy.

According to Mrs Robertson, another advantage to the philanthropic model is that agencies giving financial support to the arts often have a limited view of what is art and an expanded view of what is considered illicit. Nude photography is considered quite tame in today’s artistic landscape. However, if an artist decides that his expression of what art involves or entails anything to do with a perceived desecration of religious text, this is often seen as not in line with what the government deems as artistic. Even with the supposed separation of church and state in America, funding for organizations that advocate such acts often see their financial attributions vanish quite quickly.

It can be concluded that the philanthropic model of financial support for the arts does allow for a much freer form of expression. This does little in the gap between government funding and obtaining economic support from individuals or private organizations. In the coming months it would be fiscally sound for those seeking to continue or newly acquire private financial means to support their artistic organizations, to begin the ever continuous process of courting investors in the arts.

Even with Jeremy Hunt stating that cuts are only affecting ‘Front Line’ arts organizations, with the demise of funding for such prominent institutions such as the Poetry Book Society and the Northcott Theatre Exeter, it would behoove all arts organizations to incorporate a greater amount of time and energy into soliciting philanthropic means of financial support.

There is much to be said for the application of cultural astuteness. Especially in the economic climate that is facing Britain today. It may be one day very soon that the very thing that put the arts at risk may be exactly what society will be looking to as a comfort when engaging the masses.

Further Reading:
Arts Council England website
Philanthropy and the Arts UK
Poetry Book Society (PBS)
North Country Arts Council (NCAC)
Northcott Theatre Exeter
I Value The Arts website