INTERVIEW: Joshua Jones on locality, The League of Gentlemen and ‘Local Fires’

Photo by Nik Roche, link below

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Joshua Jones on the research process behind his collection Local Fires (Parthian Books, 2023).

You’ve spoken elsewhere about the fact that Local Fires was inspired by real events that took place in your hometown of Llanelli, Wales. Before we delve more deeply into the wider concerns of locality, I’m curious to know how you handled real life material. How did you translate real people, places and things into fiction? And were there ethical concerns?

Most characters, if not all, in Local Fires are an amalgamation of a number of people that I knew, or a hotpot of certain personality traits from a few different people. For example, ‘Danny Jenkins’ is a representation of a lot of boys from my school year. Sometimes they’re simply different versions of myself. Absolutely, there’s ethical concerns – for example, on two occasions I write about two unrelated deaths of young people that I knew and were friends with. I talk about those deaths in passing, they’re not focal points in the stories at all. I wanted to build a sense of causality of trauma within these working-class communities, and lack of resources available. Death, addiction, generational grief and anger, politics and economics of post-industrial Welsh towns and the forced disintegration of entire communities are considered to this end.

For a while I got too anxious about doing justice to ‘the facts’. I tried to remember that I only know what I know, and even then, it isn’t truth. It certainly isn’t ‘the’ truth, if such a thing exists. On the day I received my A-Level results, and found out I’d passed well enough to go to my university of choice, I was on my way to meet friends at the local Wetherspoons to celebrate our successes and futures. On my way into town I saw the Park Congregational Church was on fire. It felt like the whole town was there – not fact, but a feeling, which makes for an interesting correspondence. To me, and the character William Williams, it felt like that fire changed everything.

It’s fascinating to hear about that proximity between the characters and yourself, and between the fictional Llanelli and the real Llanelli. In many ways, Local Fires feels like a ‘local’ collection to me, in that it has a rooted sense of place. I think one of the tensions within the collection is the attachment of jeopardy to that sense of place, particularly in ‘It’s Black Country Out There’, a story which deftly reflects the anxiety of a place or community falling apart. Broadly speaking, do you feel local identity has been or is being eroded in the UK? And what is the importance, if any, of local identity as a social or emotional phenomenon?

I’m reminded of that scene from The League of Gentlemen, when two construction workers enter the shop, owned by Edward & Tulip Tattsyrup, to serve them with papers to sign. Some out-of-town company wants to build a new road through the valley. Tulip recoils in a mix of horror and fright, to comedic effect, and says: ‘This is a local shop for local people.’ In all honesty I think that might be one of the earliest forms of media I consumed as a child (years after it first aired) that got me thinking about (hyper-)locality, how that informs identity on a personal level. With the loss of community is a loss of self – and when that community, that place, is jeopardised, so is the identity of the person(s) that make it.

I left Llanelli for opportunity, freedom and self-expression, but in the almost ten years since, I’ve moved closer and closer back to the place – geographically, and in other states. I feel like I am a sponge for the feeling or ‘vibe’ of a place – I can read them better than I can read people. I wear the place like a mask. I’ve been a different person in every place I’ve lived. Living in Wales again I feel attuned to the collective grief of the country, the cultural melancholia of our literature. When writing Local Fires and being such a big fan of Welsh writing anyway (Caradog Prichard, Caradoc Evans, Leonora Brito, Thomas Morris to name a few), I felt like I could tap into that sense of grief and loss with ease. After all, it’s very traditionally Welsh to be brought up hating Thatcher! I remember reading an article considering London as a megacity. Think of how much landmass that includes, constantly oozing outwards to eat up more natural environments in order to build new roads, housing, infrastructure: the amalgamation of local history and heritage into the monoculture city state. I was reminded of the Judge Dredd comics, where the megacities cover most of their country and replace nations as the dominant governing political entity.

On the other side, hyper-localisation breeds nationalism. ‘This is a local shop for local people – there’s nothing for you here!’ Immigration and the rise of European, Asian and Middle Eastern-owned businesses are seen as jeopardising the state of things. In Llanelli, recently, there was a mass protest outside a hotel that had been closed down by the Home Office in order to house several hundred asylum seekers. For months several locals gathered and ‘protested’. Some of them were frustrated at the continued closure of businesses in the area and were looking for an outlet for that frustration, a few people chose it as an opportunity to air their racist, conservative vomit. The plans were cancelled and the hotel could no longer house asylum seekers anyway, because upon inspection the fire service discovered that it wasn’t fit to serve as a hotel in the first place, due to the lack of fire safety measures! Of course, I’m oversimplifying a complicated topic that seriously drove a wedge between the town’s population, but that attachment of jeopardy to a place, and that place’s subsequent falling apart, is misdirected. Government policy and conservative austerity is the biggest threat to local identity. After that, it’s the locals themselves.

But, on a final note, I believe in positive local identity. Stone Club and Weird Walk, for example, are doing an incredible job in celebrating local folklore and mythology across the UK, utilising radio, podcasts, social media as well as publications and in-person events. They’ve made it cool to be into stones, and to be local! Positive affirmation of local culture and beliefs is worthy of remembering and celebrating. Welsh museums and galleries are doing a good job, in my opinion, of highlighting local artists and history, especially identities traditionally missing from those narratives, such as Welsh LGBTQ+/Queer and POC voices.

A persistent theme within the collection is youth and childhood experience, delivered through plotlines around school, family and young friendship. I’m curious to know whether writing about youth had a therapeutic or confessional quality for you, and whether the process evoked any complex emotions. More broadly, what does it mean, or how did it feel, to examine childhood through an adult lens?

I think it’s easier to write about being young when I’m still young. I’ve only just turned twenty-seven, so I’m closer in age to my teenage years than I am to someone in their 50s. Which is a reason why so many of my characters are young people – although, some of the most touching compliments I’ve received in reviews state that I did a good job in creating convincing characters, regardless of age, gender, situation. Writing gives you the opportunity to be a shapeshifter, or more like a chameleon.

A lot of the experiences and real-life events explored in Local Fires happened when I was growing up, or when my parents were in their teen years. The phrases ‘In my time’ or ‘When we were young’ were heard a lot in my household. My parents had affection for the town, when it had a booming drinking culture. That affectionate nostalgia had a strong effect on me, but I have a hard time separating nostalgic romanticism from remembering the past. I remember, sometime in the early 2000s, watching Titanic on VHS with my mum, and feeling bored. I think that encapsulates a lot of my thoughts on the romanticism of memory.

I needed to remember a lot of quite painful experiences so I could write about them, and that was uncomfortable. But a lot of it was only just below the surface, barely a scratch. Experiences of being bullied or witnessing bullies, of putting on masks to fit in, of going through my entire childhood and teenage years without an Autism diagnosis – I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 22 years old. In some ways, my perception of the character ‘Johnny Radio’, an old man looking for his lost radio, isn’t that different from being a teenager or in your early 20s. It’s just as terrifying, life doesn’t get any easier. I like to think there’s a lot of humour in Local Fires too, though. It’s not all doom and gloom.

Speaking to that idea of experience and personal development, one of the most interesting aspects of the collection for me is your treatment of masculinity. I was particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of the braggadocio and violence in ‘Half Moon, New Year’ and the alternate model of masculinity inspired by Rodin’s The Age of Bronze in ‘The Fourth Wedding’: ‘It was beautiful. It emanated strength, and a fragility, that felt very manly. Or what masculinity should be — vulnerable.’ (Local Fires, p.16). I wonder if you could share your thoughts on that contrast.

Even though, as you say, the masculinity on display in ‘Half Moon, New Year’ is arrogant, bragging, violent, there’s vulnerability within that. Danny Jenkins, at the end of the story, looks to the sky and to across the street and thinks about the past, when it was ‘better’. I was thinking about the vulnerability of realising that you are tapped in a cycle of your own actions. ‘Half Moon, New Year’ is more focused on active, temporal masculinity. ‘The Fourth Wedding’, on the other hand, considers passive, abstract forms of masculinity – of beauty, fragility. I believe that line you quote in your question acknowledges that with strength there needs to be fragility. There must be balance.

In the story, the new husband is arrogant, loud. He proclaims he’s going to take his wife up to their hotel room to consummate their marriage, but he soon falls asleep before he can even get undressed. But in the morning, he speaks to her with kindness, she considers his form beautiful. I think I can fall into the trap of black and white thinking, that people are either kind and good, or they’re arseholes. Writing these stories, considering different forms and presentations of masculinity, made me contemplate my own difficulties with abstract thought, and also how I present masculinity. When I write it’s often because I want to learn something about myself, and I really think I did with these stories.

To close, I’m keen to get your perspective on the short story cycle form. It’s a form I have interviewed several writers on (including Alice Ash, Zoe Gilbert and Jon McGregor), and about which I feel like I am gradually beginning to understand its unique, fertile character. I’d like to know what you feel the short story cycle can achieve that the novel or short story collection cannot, if anything, and how you see a future for the form.

It’s interesting that you ask me to comment on the future of the short story form, when you consider it as a cycle! I think that perfectly encapsulates the short story. While the novel and the poem are always stopping to think about what the form of it means, what is its future, the short story continues to just happen. In that sense, it’s the perfect form to really get to the thick of life.

I would like to comment on the future of short story culture in Wales, though. As do Ireland and Scotland, Wales has a strong lineage of short story writers, and most Welsh writers, whether they were poets, novelists or essayists, were also successful at the short story form – Rhys Davies and Kate Roberts are two such historical figures. In contemporary writing Owen Sheers, Thomas Morris, Deborah Kay Davies and Cynan Jones have also been widely celebrated. Swansea University’s Cultural Institute have worked closely with the Rhys Davies Trust to produce a prize for new Welsh writers of the form, of which Parthian have published the anthologies. Parthian have also published Queer Square Mile, a mammoth collection of queer short stories. Basically there’s plenty of writers in the form, and publishers releasing collections of short stories, but not enough opportunities for writers who don’t have or aren’t ready to publish a collection of short stories yet. There needs to be publications dedicated to the form, like there is in Ireland (The Stinging Fly, Pig’s Back) and Scotland (Gutter, Extra Teeth). We have the writers; we just need to give them voice.

Joshua Jones (he/him) is a queer, autistic writer and artist from Llanelli, South Wales. He co-founded Dyddiau Du, a NeuroQueer art and literature space in Cardiff. He is a Literature Wales Emerging Writer for 2023, and his most recent project is Room/Ystafell/Phòng, a publication of Queer writing & art from LGBTQ+ Welsh and Vietnamese writers, as part of the British Council’s 2020 season in Viet Nam. Local Fires is his first publication of fiction, published by Parthian.

Author photograph by Nik Roche

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Victoria Richards on womanhood, the uncanny and ‘Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Victoria Richards on the research process behind her collection Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep… But We Don’t Mind (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023).

One of the core themes of Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep is, in my reading, the human capacity for compassion in the face of suffering. In some stories, characters are made to endure personal suffering, or witness the suffering of others; in others, it is the reader who is challenged to respond to that suffering. But in all, the difficulties of enacting compassion in the face of horror, sadness, etc feels ever-present. Is that a fair reading? How do you feel the difficulties of compassion function both within these stories, and within your personal relationship with the world?

I believe that compassion is the key to our humanity. Without it, we are little more than selfish, cold, avaricious consumers (of time, of material goods, of other people’s love and loyalty). It is through compassion and empathy that we are able to love and be loved; it is through human connection that we achieve something akin to God, or nirvana. Suffering and pain are made palatable by their opposites: love and compassion. Yet it remains our greatest challenge: can you feel compassion for someone who has wronged you? To be able to do so, you must be able to put yourself in their shoes and understand their motivation. If you can do that, you release yourself from pain and suffering. It is loving the one who has wounded you that ultimately sets you free.

Compassion as a quality is something that has captivated me since I was a young child, and I still don’t entirely know why. I remember my parents describing me as “too sensitive” because I would cry when the cat caught a bird and brought it in to the house. I remember persuading my dad to let me put an advert on Teletext (showing my age, here!) to advertise for pen pals – in the ad, I described myself as “compassionate” and asked anyone reading to, “please write to me with all your problems”. I was only eight years old. I grew up with a natural ache for others – when I was ten, I told my teacher that I wanted to be a psychologist.

I don’t think we should hide from suffering: let it be witnessed; let it be understood. Let us place ourselves in the shoes of the wounded and the person doing the wounding; let us attempt to understand the duality of these two concepts intimately, close up. I suppose, deep down, I don’t believe in inherent ‘evil’. I don’t believe anyone is ‘all bad’. I believe everyone can be ‘saved’. But to be ‘saved’, to be ‘made good’, we have to be understood.

More simply, I enjoy writing an ‘unlikeable’ or ‘damaged’ character, because it forces the reader to question what it is they like or don’t like about them. Sometimes, what we don’t like in a character can tell us an awful lot about what we don’t like in ourselves.

I was taken by your use of the language of emergencies, particularly the way you voice formal emergency guidelines in ‘Never Run From Wild Dogs’ and ‘Drowning Doesn’t Feel Like Drowning’. Writing within a world in which the word ‘emergency’ feels like it is gaining increasing prevalence, what effect does the sometimes uncanny-sounding vocabulary of emergency advice have on you? And what inspired to work with it creatively?

The motivation for using the field research on drowning came from a news story I was working on in my day job as a journalist. We were writing about the number of drownings that happen on busy summer days in popular seaside beauty spots, but which go unnoticed, because – as the adage goes – drowning really doesn’t look like drowning (or, at least, it doesn’t look an awful lot like the drowning we see in movies, where people yell and wave and shout and make a lot of noise).

Drowning is a lot more subtle than we might think: and that made me think about the way we present ourselves to others in our daily lives, how we can be ‘drowning’ right under the noses of our colleagues, our friends, our loved ones. We don’t cry for help, very often. We don’t make a huge fuss and attract attention. We don’t ask to be saved. We just drown slowly and quietly, in plain sight. The human experience can be very lonely – and surrounded by ‘emergency’. The trouble is, it’s a silent emergency most of the time. The people who shout loudest are not always the ones who need the most urgent help.

On a more practical level, I enjoy the mix of ‘official’ and ‘lyrical’ language. The former can sometimes present itself as a ‘found poem’. Emergency guidelines can sound dull and mechanical – but look at what they’re describing! The loss of something valuable, the loss of vitality, the terrifying end to life… all dressed up in ‘four handy steps’. Guidelines like these take the thing we fear the most – death – and make it tangible. They make it real. They give us a crutch or a life buoy; numbered instructions for how to cope with something terrible and unimaginable. In a crisis, that’s something we all need, but rarely get. I like the juxtaposition of the emotional and the practical. One only makes the other feel more accentuated, stark and profound.

Another persistent motif is the representation of the female experience. Looking back through the collection, the lived experiences of women form the backbone of many – almost all – of the stories’ narrative content. I’m curious to know whether you feel that the collection is a statement of feminism, and whether my question in that context is fair and has meaning? Is to write about the female experience, however one quantifies that, always an exercise in feminism?

It’s an interesting idea – is writing about the female lived experience, by definition, a feminist act? There are plenty of women who reject the very notion of feminism (many of them say so defiantly in our national newspapers or in fringe broadcast outlets). Internalised misogyny is all too real. Some of the fiercest disbelievers and critics against women victims of rape or sexual abuse are women. The notion of ‘the sisterhood’ is increasingly complex.

When it comes to my personal outlook, I can only go by the great women writers who sparked my love of the written word: Simone de Beauvoir, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Deborah Levy, Sharon Olds, bel hooks. Is their work feminist? Undoubtedly. But is that because women are expected to write confessionally, as these great women do – and then are typecast when they do so? Absolutely. Is it ‘feminist’ when we are confessional about sex, intimacy, abuse, our bodies, our longing, our dissatisfaction, our anger? I think so.

However you define ‘feminism’ (and each person will have their own notion of what that word means), women opening a window to their lives is, in my opinion, inherently subversive. To write about domestic disharmony, say – or about the suffocating intensity of bearing a child – is taboo.

Related themes, at least in terms of women’s historical subjugation, are those of marriage and parenthood, as well as the expectations on women around these aspects of life. I’m keen to know how you feel about marriage and family as institutions whose meaning has fluctuated over the centuries, the past century in particular. What does it mean to write about marriage, pregnancy and parenthood?

I write a lot about being a mother because I am fascinated by the way that feminism and motherhood clash, rather than intersect. Once women split in two, they become gently rounded whispers of milk and maternity. Removed from work, from responsibility, from heavy lifting; they’re not supposed to be “seen”, not really. They are elysian, beatified. Womanhood as we knew it, is entirely erased – and so with it all sense of sexuality, individualism and power. One could argue that is what happens within marriage, too. Marriage, in fact, was never meant to be about love and giddy, dizzy strength of feeling, of finding a “soulmate”. The original meaning of marriage was possession. Marriage was designed to give women economic security; to pass on the responsibility for the woman from the father to the husband. Just look at the history: in the UK, on getting married, women gained a home and (in some cases) relative wealth, but lost the right to an identity. Their husbands became their legal guardians, “until death us do part”. That’s the legacy that led to women shedding their names – so why are we still insisting on perpetuating it in today’s supposedly progressive and enlightened society?

What interests me is the way that women are still kept under strict controls… our bodily autonomy is being stripped away globally, with the reversal of abortion laws as seen in the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US – but we’re kept tight to social controls, too: we are simply not allowed to be anything but content with our lot. To be angry with the loss of self and the struggle for identity is to be a monster; a skewed line in the patriarchal narrative that upholds the idea of “family” at all costs. Mothers are the sacrificial lambs of society.

To write about it – to showcase you want anything more than this – is to expose what’s behind the curtain. It is unwelcome. To write about it at all becomes an act of rebellion – and in my personal opinion, that is a feminist act. I am a feminist because being ‘woman’ affects the way I exist in the world. And as an aside: my use of the word ‘woman’ is entirely inclusive. I hate the way womanhood is being weaponised – that we are witnessing confected culture wars that pit women – trans, non-binary, gender fluid – against each other. We should all be on the same team. We’re fighting exactly the same prejudice, stigma and threat to life. We should be protecting and embracing the sisterhood, not dividing it.

Finally, I’d like to close with a more general question about the uncanny. In my recent interview with Katie Oliver, she described how her use of hyperreality allowed her to explore ‘how far people can go in terms of convincing themselves they can get what they want’. This resonated with me when I was reading Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, in terms of the way the uncanny seems linked to desire, particularly in your closing story ‘Earnest Magnitude’s Infinite Sadness’. Is there a link between desire and the uncanny, perhaps connected with that strange psychological link between desire and repulsion? And is there a reading there for aspects of the uncanny within the collection?

I’m always attracted to the macabre and uncanny. When I was a little girl I was in love with vampires (not much has changed). A key element in my work – something I think about all the time – is the idea that someone or something can be in the ‘wrong place’. Or, the place is everyday, but there’s a subtle wrongness to it. I am fascinated by the idea of the presence of something that doesn’t fit – that shouldn’t be where it is. I like exploring what makes us nervous. We have a sixth sense that tells us a person, a situation or a place isn’t safe – that something isn’t quite right. I’m probably talking about intuition, but creatively, I like to ham that up: hence writing stories about little girls with memories of longer lifetimes than they could (or should) possibly be aware of. I once wrote a short story about a human heart that turned up, bloodied and beating, in a school playground. People avoided it at first, but then they got used to it – and it became a petty annoyance. The PTA WhatsApp group was full of moans and whinges about it.

I like the idea that we are all, ultimately, unknown and unknowable. That strangeness and mysteriousness is all around us, all the time. We fear what we don’t understand. And we can never truly understand anything but our own desire and repulsion. It feels uncanny because we are uncanny. I like playing with the fear we have that we can never truly understand each other completely. But (bless us!) we never stop trying. Do we? That’s why we read…

Victoria Richards is a journalist, writer and opinion editor at The Independent. Her debut poetry collection, You’ll need an umbrella for this, was published with V. Press in 2022. Her short story collection, Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep (but we don’t mind) was published in June 2023 with Fly on the Wall Press. Find her on Twitter @nakedvix.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Sam Byers on social media, the apocalypse and ‘Come Join Our Disease’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Sam Byers on the research process behind his novel Come Join Our Disease (Faber & Faber, 2021).

In Come Join Our Disease, illness and uncleanliness become two methods by which your characters resist their assimilation into a society characterised by perfectionism, corporatism and authority. It is a type of refusal which is at once both anarchistic and nihilistic, destroying ones relationship with society by destroying ones own immediate environment. Im curious to know what you think of the tension there between resistance and self-destruction, and whether that tension comes from a personal place.

I think the tension for me resides in the fact that in order for the kind of society you’re describing to function successfully, it needs to foster in its subjects a myth of both individuality and linear individual development. Or to put it another way, it needs to make sure that its own myth of progress is embodied and sustained at an individual level by people who see themselves as being on their own journey of achievement and growth. So in that sense it’s not so much ‘self-destruction’ I’m interested in as the question of whether, if the idea of the self or our reliance on a certain concept of the self were softened and opened to interrogation, the structures that rely on that concept might weaken in turn. So the refusal and resistance I’m imagining is more just an effort to dismantle the myth on an inner, personal level, rather than constantly exhausting oneself trying to tackle it at a systemic or societal level. But of course, you’re absolutely right that the line between destroying our reliance on the idea of the self, refusing all ideas of personal development and progress etc, and just flat out self-destruction is an extremely fine one. I suppose it’s personal just in the sense that I honestly think this tension is personal to everyone, even if not everyone articulates it in quite the same way.

I feel like some of the most pertinent comments the novel makes on modernity are around the ambiguous relationship between reality and artifice, and between private and public life. These two binaries are challenged simultaneously in your repeated references to social media, particularly Instagram, in which the lines between these concepts blur and refract. Im keen to know how you handled this tension while working on Come Join Our Disease, and whether your view of this (and social media in general) changed while writing?

I think my relationship to reality in general has become more ambiguous, and I think that’s quite conscious on my part. I think Come Join Our Disease was the beginning of trying to loosen my own hold on certainty a bit, to explore in a relatively controlled way what that might feel like. I very much go back and forth on this because obviously new dynamics of reality and artifice are likely to be integral to most of our future experiences – just look at the way the battle to manage ‘disinformation’ on social media has spread so rapidly into an effort to determine who is and isn’t ‘real’. Sometimes I feel like what’s needed are new certainties – there is a lot of emphasis, for example, on being ‘in nature’ at the moment, or focusing on one’s body, as if these concrete and very immediate realities can act as a kind of immunisation against ambiguity and the anxiety it provokes. But then sometimes I feel like perhaps the opposite is necessary — to let go of certainty, stop clinging to it, and just become a lot more comfortable with its absence, my suspicion being that a lack of certainty is only unsettling if you’re looking for certainty. I think in terms of handling those tensions in writing, obviously a significant shift for me was moving into the first person. Both my previous novels were in third. First person was something I felt I needed to work up to precisely because of all those tensions. In some ways I think I needed to consider my own relationship to subjectivity before I felt able to write in the first person.

Tied to that theme of reality vs artifice, one manifestation of that tension comes through the performative empathy of several of the corporate characters within the novel. While Im wary of the term virtue signallingas one that inadequately tries to describe the phenomena it refers to, Im curious to know whether you feel were living in an age of increased performative empathy, perhaps enabled by social media, or whether its roots run deeper in the human condition?

I think we’re living in an age in which performativity in general is hugely increased, and I absolutely think it’s largely social media that are to blame. I think people zero in on things like empathy, kindness, virtue etc as the most performative aspects because they seem like the most obviously hypocritical, but I don’t really think those qualities have been rendered performative in a way that, say, outrage, hostility, and fear have not. If everything is broadcast, everything becomes a performance. And if everything is a performance then everything must tend towards a degree of dramatic impact. For me the problem when those kinds of phenomena move out into the corporate sphere, so that brands and institutions feel under pressure to perform their kindness, their generosity, their political correctness or whatever, isn’t so much that I think it’s bullshit (although I do think it’s basically bullshit), it’s more the very basic fact of them pretending to be personalities at all. There has been a huge move towards personification in branding, advertising, corporate culture etc. Now when you buy a carton of orange juice it describes itself to you in first person on the packet. I’m organic. My packaging is disposable. Anything to avoid the impersonal. This I think is the deeper problem with what people call ‘brand-washing’. It’s encouraging a completely false sense of intimacy, and that sense of intimacy exists only so as to render us more susceptible to exploitation.

Im also curious to know how you feel about the role of automation in our society. While Marx envisioned a world in which automation frees human beings for increased creative activity, the world of work portrayed in Come Join Our Disease points to a society in which an expectation has developed that we do not just offer our labour but our character, our sociability, our personhood. How do you feel about that, and again, might that come from a personal place?

I know this is in some ways heretical but I’m not persuaded that the increase in leisure time that will supposedly be the result of automation will lead directly to an increase in creative activity. My reason being: many people have a great amount of leisure time now, and they spend it on a numbing cycle of entertainment and outrage. I think there would be an increase in creative activity among people who feel drawn to creative endeavour, and I certainly think there would be an increase in the number of people exploring their creativity, simply because there would be some who had always had an interest. But it seems to me that there would also just be a huge increase in time spent being passively entertained. As to the changing expectations around work, I think this is pretty universal to be honest. There has been this very significant shift towards ‘culture’ in the workplace. There are positives to that — I like to think for example that there is more emphasis on treating people respectfully and fairly than might have been the case a generation ago — but I think there are also significant pressures. I think people feel a greater expectation than ever before to be their ‘best self’ at work — this kind of smiling, eager, unflappable beacon of positivity. I think the demand is excessive, and I think the pressure to meet that demand is unsustainable for the great majority of people.

Finally, I was struck while reading as to the similarities (and differences) between Maya and Zelmas movement and the movement built by the male characters in Palahniuks Fight Club. The disaffection with corporatism that leads both sets of characters to withdraw from society, and to rebuild an experimental community in opposition to it, led me to a painful question: have we come nowhere? Palahniuks novel came out in 1996, and yet more than two decades later, the problem of extrication from a soullesssociety appears more inescapable than ever. Do you feel like this a fair analysis? And if so, how do you manage the sense within you that we may be being pulled inexorably and tidally towards the apocalypse(CJOD, p.90)?

I think there’s quite the apocalyptic turn in culture generally, at the moment, with people across the political spectrum all envisaging slightly different apocalypses and attaching to those apocalypses a slightly different set of fears. That may be a consequence of exactly what you’re describing — the feeling that many of the problems we’re facing now are problems we have known about for years; the sense that we’re stuck in some sort of loop. Perhaps in a way we dream of apocalypse. Perhaps it has come to seem like the only event that would really constitute a significant change. This is quite explicit in some commentary — the idea that there can be no reforming our way out of the mess, that scorched earth is the only possible approach. I certainly don’t feel especially optimistic about the present or near future but I suppose in some ways I also take a degree of comfort and reassurance from my sense that things are cyclical. There is a time for certain forces to be in ascendancy, then a time when those forces are on the wane. There is absolutely nothing in our world that lasts indefinitely. I like Susan Faludi’s concept of the spiral: there are always backlashes and counter-forces, but with each revolution we get a little closer to where we need to be.

Sam Byers is the author of Idiopathy (2013); Perfidious Albion (2018); and Come Join Our Disease (2021). His work has been translated into multiple languages and his writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Jon McGregor on story cycles, show-don’t-tell and the ‘Reservoir’ novels

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Jon McGregor on the research process behind his novel Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2018) and its companion piece The Reservoir Tapes (4th Estate, 2018).

As someone who both writes and teaches writing, the adage ‘show don’t tell’ – the mantra of so many creative writing tutors – will be all-too-familiar. Yet it strikes me that the architectonic structure of Reservoir 13 lends itself to a whole lot of telling. While some sequences function as ‘scenes’, much of the novel’s story is delivered through reportage, reported speech and contracted anecdote. How do you feel about the ‘show don’t tell’ adage? Can a story be effectively ‘told’, rather than shown?

­I think the whole issue with the ‘show don’t tell’ adage is that firstly people take it too literally, and secondly they stick to it too adamantly. I think where it comes in handy is in nudging us to trust our readers to understand our stories. If I write, “The man had a baby, and the baby died,” I really, really don’t need to add, “and then the man was very sad.” Most of us understand, instinctively, that the reader will be able to infer “man is sad” from what comes before.

That’s my understanding of ‘show don’t tell.’ Give the reader a chance to figure things out for themselves. Give the reader a chance to participate in making the story work. A comedian doesn’t explain her punchline, because realising why we’re laughing is part of what’s making us laugh.

But when people take this adage too literally, and try to cut out any sense of actual narration, they can tie themselves up in terrible knots. We are storytellers, after all, not story-showers. The stories we tell each other in life are narrated, not shown, and a story on the page can often be told most economically in straightforwardly anecdotal form.

I don’t know. As soon as you think there’s a rule you should probably break it, is my rule.

The novel’s companion piece The Reservoir Tapes functions very differently from Reservoir 13, moving through standalone short stories that fit into the wider whole of both pieces. I’ve been speaking with a few novelists recently about whether that ‘composite novel’ structure, as reflected by The Reservoir Tapes, might be particularly suited to the themes and settings of rural fiction – the community, the gossip, seasonal change. Does that resonate at all? Did the composite nature of The Reservoir Tapes provide you with a different angle to explore the village’s story? And if so, how?

Hmm. I’m not sure… I think I’d be inclined, actually, to call Reservoir 13 a ‘composite novel’, and The Reservoir Tapes something else. I mean, literally, Reservoir 13 was written as a series of individual components (animals, birds, trees, weather, major characters, minor characters, work, water… it might not surprise you to learn that there were thirteen categories), and then assembled, collage-fashion, into the chronological framework. It was composited. Whereas The Reservoir Tapes was originally written for radio, and I knew that each piece had to stand alone as well as be part of the larger whole. In TV they’ve started calling this kind of thing an “anthology”, I think? Which would obviously be confusing in the book world. I’ve also heard it called “a novel-in-stories”, or “a story cycle.”

Anyway. A novel where you can maybe read some of it or all of it, or read different bits in different orders, or where in some way the parts are both complete in themselves and part of a greater whole? I’m into it. And I think it’s a structure that works well whenever you want to work on a larger scale or tell a story with multiple moving parts. That could be a story about neighbours in a street or building, or about different families across centuries in the same place, or… well, there could be all sorts of applications. What should we call this? I’m a big fan of Keith Ridgway’s approach to this question. I saw him being interviewed about A Shock, and when he was asked whether that was short stories, or a story cycle, or a novel-in-stories, he said: “It’s a novel. It’s a novel because I say it’s a novel. Next question.”

(He might not have literally said “next question,” but that was his tone.)

Last year I spoke with the writer Hannah Stevens about how missing persons are handled in fiction and by society as a whole. Her collection In Their Absence opens with a quote from the eight century Chinese poet Wang Wei: ‘When you are gone, there’ll be no answers to the questions…’, which I was reminded of when reading both Reservoir pieces. I want to ask about your decision as a storyteller to leave so many questions unanswered. When, for example, did you know that the central mystery of the story might never be solved? Did that feel like a risk?

Oh, I honestly didn’t give it a moment’s thought, at least initially. The story was about the girl’s disappearance, not about the girl’s finding. It seemed just immediately self-evident that the story would be about her not being found; what that does to people, and how things do or don’t carry on around that central fact. And once it started to dawn on me that some readers might object to that, I just immediately dug my heels in. Like, just absolutely: tough shit. If you want a puzzle to solve, go and buy a jigsaw. I’ve got nothing against detective stories, but that’s not what this story is. This story is about how awful it would be to never find out what happens to someone when they disappear.

Did it feel like a risk? I mean, everything about writing is kind of a risk, isn’t it? People might not like it. People might not get it. People might laugh at it. People might write shit about it online. People might talk shit about it behind your back. People might not pay you to do it anymore.

Circling back to genre, I think it would be fair to group both Reservoir pieces within what has sometimes been called the ‘Northern Noir’, among whom we might identify writers like Benjamin Wood, Ben Myers, Sarah Hall and others. Questions of the usefulness of genre-defining aside, I’ve asked several writers whether they feel the North of England is especially conducive, as a landscape, to feelings of being unsettled, insecure, vulnerable. I wonder to what extent choosing the Peak District was a conscious choice in heightening these feelings, or whether you had other reasons for situating your story there?

The Peak District was definitely a very specific choice; partly because I know it quite well, and partly (mostly) because I’m fascinated by the contrasts and tensions you can find there. It’s seen as picturesque and wild, but it’s actually a very industrialised landscape. The Industrial Revolution started there, and there’s a long history of mills, mines, and quarries – a history that continues today. So you get these awkward juxtapositions of heavy industry, agriculture, conservation, tourism, all jostling for space in a relatively small geographical area. And then alongside that there are all the usual tensions between ‘locals’ and ‘incomers’, the pressures on housing costs, the phenomenon of village residents commuting to the city to work while people who work in the village can only afford to live in the city…

It’s rich territory, is what I’m saying.

To close, I’d like to ask more formally about your practice of research. As a writer and an educator, what is your perspective on the role of research? Broadly, what does research mean in the context of imagining, constructing and delivering an effective story?

As a caveat to this, let me just say that I’m a terrible researcher. My plans for research are always bigger than the reality of my practice. But I do have some basic principles: I want to make up stories, while making sure that those stories are grounded in reality. I want to make sure that no-one who knows their stuff will read my work and think it’s bullshit. So with Reservoir 13, that translated to talking to people about their working practices, picking up some key details and especially some particular vocabulary. I followed a lot of farmers on Twitter, read a lot of blogs and watched a lot of YouTube videos. But I also relied on showing early drafts to a few key people and letting them underline the bullshit.

The conceptual question you’re asking comes down, I think, to this: as a writer of fiction, it’s not my job to become an expert in the field I’m writing about, but it is my job to get a taste for it. It’s more important to not get it wrong than to get it right. This usually comes down to vocabulary, sensory information, and a few key details that catch the light.

(One example, from my research for Even the Dogs: I was talking to a rehab worker, and she told me that she knows that she’s made a breakthrough with a client when they make a cup of tea in the morning before using or looking for any drugs. It was such a simple and lovely detail, and said so much about how intensely compulsive drug addiction can be – and how small the first steps away from it. I knew it was a detail I needed to include, much more than the exact symptoms of withdrawal, or the exact price of particular drugs, or a list of drug-taking paraphernalia.)

But also, you know: we’re storytellers. We’re just making things up.

Jon McGregor is a writer of novels and short stories, including Lean Fall Stand, Reservoir 13, and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. He won the Dublin Literature Prize in 2012, and the Costa Novel Award in 2017. He has previously served as a judge for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He lives in Nottingham, with his family, and looks forward to spending more time in the E.U.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Zoe Gilbert on risk, re-enchantment and ‘Mischief Acts’

Photo credit: Sophie Davidson

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Zoe Gilbert on the research process behind her novel Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury, 2022).

Mischief Acts plays on not just popular myths of the forest like Robin Goodfellow, but also with historical figures, events and literatures. Each of the stories within the novel is accompanied by a folk song, riddle or poem, some of which will be familiar to many. I’m curious to know how you approached using this source material – not just the poems given verbatim but the wider pool of literature from which Mischief Acts draws. And how does that act of reading and re-appropriating fit into the more general process of myth-making, if at all?

I approached the source material for Mischief Acts in the spirit of self-indulgence. I let myself go down every rabbit hole, and as a result, serendipity appeared everywhere. I remember excitedly reporting a connection here, a confirmation there, to my partner, and him replying, ‘you’re so lucky!’ but it wasn’t luck, it was swamping myself in material until the inevitable resonances chimed. The thing about Herne the Hunter, who runs through the book, is that he connects with probably thousands of folk characters, pieces of lore, archetypes and tales from around the world. He turns up as an allusion or a shadow everywhere in lore and literature, and I started to see him in places another person might not – for example in common names of fungi, moths or mosses. He became the shape of the lens I was looking through, and as a result, almost anything I read that was relevant to the Great North Wood was potential material.

As you say, the chapters are interspersed with chants, or songs. Some of these are extant verses, from traditional wassails (‘Anon’ crops up more than once) to a poem by Blake or a lyric by Henry VIII. Mixed in with those recognisable old verses are chants I wrote myself and attributed to fictional authors. To me, reading a list of common names for fungi or mosses that runs into the thousands of terms is an exquisite pleasure: the density, the repetition, the sheer delight of names such as ‘sweet poisonpie’ just floors me. The same happened when I dredged up all the street names in post codes that were once covered by the wood, and isolated those that mentioned forests, trees, or geological features. Such beauty, in simple lists, I wanted to share, but I spent a great deal of time organising them into rhythms and forms, following those of medieval lullabies or carols. I attributed these to authors other than myself as a form of mischief – I wanted the reader to wonder where this odd little thing had come from.

I was cheeky in occasionally attempting direct pastiche of a beloved author (such as Thomas Hardy), or lifting words from a poem (by Keats) to constrain a section of writing. I also used historical texts here and there to inform voice (such as an account of the riots that followed the cancellation of Christmas by Puritans). Playfulness informed these approaches – god knows, we need to enjoy ourselves occasionally as writers – and I wrote in the spirit of my guide, Herne the Hunter, which meant embracing slipperiness, seduction and sometimes outright deception. I suppose this is a form of myth-making, but I only extend my fiction as far as I feel life will allow. The question to ask is always: is this a plausible sort of myth, or piece of lore, for the time, the people, the place? If so, make hay.

Just as an aside here: I recently gave a masterclass on Angela Carter and her self-declared business of ‘demythologising’. I hope I am doing a bit of that alongside the myth-making.

I’m sure we’ll return to that shortly, but for now I’m curious about the definition of mischief explored in Mischief Acts. In my reading, mischief encapsulates the varying energies of playfulness, chaos and damage, a half-sibling of the traditional idea of ‘evil’ removed of its negative Christian connotations. It might also include a carnivalesque relief (‘a particularly risky way of letting off steam’, p.2) and a natural expression of the amorality of nature. I’d like to ask whether you feel the idea of mischief is compatible with modern life. Are we too sensitive, or ethical, for ‘seduction, trickery, imprisonment, impersonation, and so much involuntary metamorphosis’ (p.54)?

This is exactly the sort of question I wanted to ask, but not answer, with this book. Mischief used to have a meaning closer to malevolence, which is interesting since that sort of behaviour ended up being shunted into the ‘evil’ category, which you mention. For me, the modern meaning of mischief still implies a risk of harm, yet times are changing ever-swiftly. Even old prank TV shows from the 1980s seem quite shocking by 2023 standards, in terms of the risk of harm. But ‘organised fun’ is dreaded by some precisely because it does not come with that dangerous edge – whether it is yourself or others you endanger.

Involuntary metamorphosis is a fact of life, but then so are seduction, trickery, imprisonment of various kinds, and impersonation. To pick just one domain of discourse: the conversation around consent (mainly to sex, but to anything really) has demonstrated the bind we are in. Obviously – obviously! – clear, unequivocal consent is the ideal prerequisite to risky behaviour, including sex. But it’s not seductive, by the standards of even the late 20th century. Perhaps it will become so. Perhaps we should hope it will. I am not writing fiction to dictate the way forward, but to encourage everyone to question, to remember, to hope, and ultimately, importantly, to remain undecided for as long as it takes.

I remember a slogan from a 1990s surfer-dude brand: ‘if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’ I hated it as a relatively risk-averse teenager (being a late starter with mischief), and I still think it’s dumb, because you can’t live there. But I do think we all need to go there, sometimes – it’s just that what constitutes the edge is an entirely personal matter. Stepping outside one’s constraints of goodness now and again is incredibly important. I would call it letting off steam, and the metaphor of a shut valve that makes the pressure build up inside is apposite. Whatever era we are in, and whichever generation we represent, that release of pressure will happen. It will always take different forms, but I do believe it will always involve risk. Otherwise it won’t work.

Running with that theme for the moment, I’d like to pull out a short quote from page 102, in which the downtrodden Robert Burmann reflects on the contrast between nature and society: ‘And so, I did pass that Day in considering the Puritie of the Animal Soule, and the Corruptible Nature of Man by contraste’ (emphases in the original). Burmann’s diagnosis of the human condition reminds me of the sometimes anti-humanist or misanthropic philosophies of the deep ecology movement, a structure of feeling potentially exacerbated by human-created climate change. I’d like to know if you feel we as a species have a ‘Corruptible Nature’, and whether that nature is dooming us to the fate we appear to be sealing for ourselves.

We are corruptible, but we are also profoundly adaptable. At this moment in time, it does rather look as though the corruption abounds in the upper echelons of power and wealth, and the burden of adaptation falls on the rest of us.

I don’t share Robert’s view of humanity. As a 17th-century puritan, he sees letting off steam and making merry as forms of corruption, whereas I see them as essential to the health of the human spirit, even when they don’t suit me. What I do agree with is your implied point that corruption will bring about the end human life. It has been incredibly hard to feel positive about humanity over the last half-decade, but I do think the tide is turning. It’s an amazing thing for anyone who has grown up with the convenience of, say, plastic, to even attempt to reject it. That anyone is even trying gives me hope.

Corruption occurs when it is a route to advancement. But most human beings fundamentally want to survive (or their genes do, at least). So, if we haven’t already missed the tipping point and enough people can assert together that something other than corruption will lead to survival, things might just change.

Another theme that jumps out for me in terms of that ‘human nature’ we’ve been alluding to is the relationship between nature, culture and deep time. As a composite novel that spans almost a thousand years, Mischief Acts feels like an ideal expression of how human beings and the stories we tell ourselves develop and also remain the same. I feel as though your use of nature, as a sphere in which we play out our cultures, is particularly useful for drawing those distinctions between progress and non-progress, and between enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment. Is that something that resonates with you? Do you feel as though myths and historical legend do connect us to aspects of human nature which have, perhaps, been learnt in deep time?

Myths are entirely, beautifully, man-made – I wish we could say humanity-made instead. They emanate from our collective of storytelling minds, but they don’t always tell useful stories.

I do think that nature and the folklore we have built around it are paths to connecting with the humans of the past who were, of course, just the same as us in so many ways. I certainly use nature, folklore and other historical research this way. But the myths that bound our ancestors are not often ones that we should inherit without question.

This question connects with the one above about mischief, and whether our 21st-century ethical preferences can tolerate it. It also connects with Angela Carter’s ‘demythologising’ mission. I have chosen in Mischief Acts to write about real people who defied convention, but those conventions were strong and usually made unconventional lives a misery. Ann Catley, the flirtatious diva with an extraordinary voice, was sucked into the lives of men who wanted to possess her. Samuel Matthews, the hermit who made his happy, solitary life in the wood, was a victim of mockery and ultimately violent attack. Each was made unhappy by a persistent myth and its concomitant archetypes. We should be wary of romanticising or perpetuating any ancient ideas without question, but particularly those that encourage prejudice or inequality.

Having said that, it can warm the human heart to feel other kinds of connections with the deep past, be that with humans or plants or animals. There is much we should forget, but much we should remember. This feels to me like the place where right-wing appropriation of old myth, and wholehearted re-enchantment, split off. The desire to own a particular myth, to tie it to your identity in a way that excludes others, is a bad way of attempting to connect with the past. We don’t have access to one ‘right’ original for any of our myths, lore or tales, and in England in particular, they are all a mish-mash of ideas and influences from around the world. If we do connect with aspects of human nature from deep time, they are certainly not particularly English ones, but if we find enchantment there, it is good to ask why.

To close, I’d like to circle back to that three-part structure on which the wider flow of Mischief Acts is hung: the continuum of enchantment, disenchantment and re-enchantment. In the final section of the novel, we are projected forwards into a future in which human beings continue to negotiate their relationship with nature. I’m curious to know whether you feel there are opportunities for us to be re-enchanted, to connect with nature in new ways (or even old ways). And where might that path of re-enchantment potentially lead?

Re-enchantment feels vital to me. David Southwell, the author of the Hookland Guide on Twitter and beyond, has it right: re-enchantment is resistance. This should be the clarion call of all those who feel they have lost sight of nourishing meaning in the world, because we can make our own, and reject the pretence at enchantment that most modern channels throw at us.

The thing is that no two re-enchantments look the same, and it takes a bit of self-possession to decide what makes you fall in love with the world. Nature is an obvious source for so many people, including me; the same is true of folklore. But re-enchantment could be anywhere (except, I would generalise, social media or the news cycle). It might be in your sock drawer, or in the juddering shriek of the next train you take. All that matters is that you notice, and wonder, and are suspended for just a moment from the transactional thinking of our time. Enchantment does not involve possession or desire to possess, control, status, or any anthropocentric take. Wonder is central and wonder is everywhere.

Many, many years ago, when I hung out in Camberwell with a pair of Mexican artists with high ambitions and full souls, I experienced enchantment with a city. This was extraordinary to me. They were delighted by the light in London on overcast days and dusks – so blue – and took photographs of what I might otherwise have seen as detritus. A dead pigeon or a peeling red bench was an opportunity to find beauty. For those years, having been shown how, I found bus rides and bar queues and litter-strewn parks enchanting. I saw that insanely blue veil that falls across Southern England in low light, that I had never seen before. I couldn’t afford London life as depicted in the review sections of newspapers, but beauty was everywhere, and I was fed by it.

I admit that while I still see the blue, I see less of that particular beauty; what enchants me now is different. But re-enchantment leads us to valuing what enchants us; we come to care, and to hope for the continuing existence of these things. We desire to learn about them, and share them. By distinguishing between what enchants us and what simply distracts us, if we can identify sources of deep meaning, we will hopefully care about and protect the right things, and give less attention to the ones that do nothing for us and for the world. It comes back to that idea of re-enchantment as resistance: it helps us reject the tricks that steal our attention for others’ gain, that spew propaganda about what we should value in our modern society. When we know where deep meaning lies, we are more likely to resist the meaningless: consumerism, conspicuous consumption, social status via appearance or imposed models of ‘success’. This is where we might find hope for the future.

Zoe Gilbert is the author of two novels, Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018), which was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and adapted for BBC Radio, and Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury, 2022). Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally, and won prizes including the Costa Short Story Award. She is the co-editor with Lily Dunn of the recovery anthology, A Wild and Precious Life (Unbound, 2021), and is co-director of London Lit Lab, where she teaches creative writing courses on folklore, folk tales, the fantastic and enchantment, and also mentors writers. She is a Visiting Senior Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Suffolk. She lives in Kent, where the landscape is inspiring her third novel.

http://zoegilbert.com/

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Charlie Hill on satire, rebellion and ‘The State of Us’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Charlie Hill on the research process behind his collection The State of Us (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023).

Philip Roth claimed that satire is ‘moral outrage transformed into comic art’. In The State of Us, the focus of satire is often not just moral outrage (or perhaps moral interrogation) but also received perceptions of social norms, rules and ‘typical’ behaviours. I’m curious to know what you feel the role of satire is in what feels like an increasingly absurd society. And what relationship might fiction have to ‘moral outrage’ and the role of satire?

That’s a good question. As someone who’s been writing satire – albeit not exclusively – for some years, I’ve been thinking about this a lot of late. If satire isn’t quite dead – a suggestion famously made by Tom Lehrer when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – I think it might have been forced into a change of focus. Because satire is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And, as you suggest, the comfortable of the political class have been inoculated by their absurdism. Which leaves as targets the comfortable of the rest of us.

I’m not sure any such shifts can quite justify the employment of naked ‘moral outrage’ though. If we’re going to meaningfully address our contemporary malaise, we need more, perhaps, than subtlety – and a few of my stories have fury simmering beneath the surface of the text – but I’ve read enough bad fiction to know that beating someone with the morality stick rarely makes for an effective creative response…

That’s true. Building on where that leaves us, I’m also interested in the more practical forms of rebellion alluded to in the collection. In the tellingly-titled ‘Taking Back Control’ for example, a travelling salesman ‘beats’ the system by pursuing cheap petrol prices across the UK. In my reading, satire here is aimed at the rebellion of the disaffected British people, specifically those practical rebellions which lead nowhere, achieve nothing. In that light, what place do you feel rebellion has in the personal lives of the British people? Do we have any tools, other than comic art, left?

Yeah, that story was supposed to reflect the way in which the vote to leave the EU was framed by the duplicitous, and perceived by the deluded, as an act of rebellion. When in fact it was an act of self-abuse. Then again, I feel quite pessimistic about rebellion in general. I think every healthy democracy needs a functioning culture of protest, and ours has been lost, or crushed. And what’s worse is that it doesn’t seem like there’s a way back from this situation, not least because of the ubiquity of traceable communications devices.

As for comic art, I’d like to think it’s a tool but I’m not sure. I mean I think all art should change the way we see the world, however microscopically, so I suppose you could say it can function as a tool. But I think for there to be any possibility of this happening, other elements need to be in place. Political will, for example, and systems and structures of governance and administration that are genuinely responsive. Not to mention public desire in the first place. These things are inter-connected of course, but the point is, in isolation, art can be little more than consolation.

Continuing on the role of the artist, I’d like to hone in on a line from your story ‘When Helen Levitt Met Vivian Maier’, a fictional account of two famous photographers encountering one another in New York. In this story, Levitt (as narrator) states that: ‘one of the things you have to be able to do is … be fully present in a scene … and, at the same time, to absent yourself, so that none of you encroaches into the frame’ (p.17). I wonder how this might apply to your role as an author. Do you find yourself attempting not to ‘encroach’?

I think I vacillate between two extremes. I certainly have an affinity for writing at a distance – one of my favourite short stories is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Plage. Similarly, the writer Alan Beard said my recent memoir read like ‘an attempt to stand back and view his own life as an outsider might’, and I’ve invested a lot of time in trying to write with the cool detachment that Anna Kavan brought to her short fiction in Machines in the Head (albeit unknowingly: I first read her in 2021, after years of working on a dispassionate voice).

Alternatively, I’ve also long been fascinated with interiority, and the modernist immersion practiced by Robert Walser. And I suppose you could see this as gonzo fiction, with the author firmly at its centre, owning each perspective, encroaching on every phrase.

I’m not sure which approach I’m more suited to but the latter is less risky, I think, and brings more energy to the page. Whereas the former can easily come across as flat and bloodless, rather than intentionally detached.

To close I’d like to talk about Birmingham – your home city and the focus of the collection’s titular story. In ‘The State of Us’, Birmingham is presented via its history, its identity and its character as a kind of terminus for international culture. I’m keen to know how you feel about Birmingham, about its history and future, and about the state of it in 2023.

Perhaps more ‘hub’ than terminus (except that word is one of the most ‘shoot-me-now’ in contemporary English.)

I’m not sure what I think about Birmingham, and its influence on me. I mean I love it, of course I do.  It’s my home. It’s a fascinating city of enormous and under-appreciated historical significance and – literally – a million stories. But I’m wary of making too much of my relationship with it.

I know ‘place’ is important in fiction, I just think that’s ‘place’ per se. So many of our contemporary relationships focus on difference, I’m inclined to play up the universality of human experience wherever this is possible (and justified). And as long as you have your characters interacting with their environment in interesting ways, I don’t think the setting matters. By which I mean I’d be confident of writing a worthwhile psycho-geographical piece set in a city I didn’t know. Even when I wrote a novella that was very particular about location – and used actual South Birmingham road names – I told myself this was just co-incidence, that I was just writing about what I knew, and the story could happily be transposed. I also dislike being referred to as a ‘Birmingham writer’. This happened once and I thought it was at best lazy and at worst reductive.

Then again, I’m told my life-writing is self-deprecating and this is a characteristic that people often ascribe to Brummies. So I might be channelling what is sometimes considered the city’s personality, and enjoying the benefits of its literary ‘terroir’, unconsciously.

With regard to the state of the city, I’m also conflicted. I’m not particularly cheery about the direction that any centre of population is taking. In the story you mention, I was aiming to create something uplifting, a sort of ‘fantasy realpolitik’ (no, really!) but as its title implies we’re in such a mess that – if you’re so inclined – you can read it as something a lot more negative…

Charlie Hill is the author of two contemporary novels (The Space Between Things, Indigo Dreams Press, 2010; Books! Profile Books, 2013), a novella (Stuff, Cinnamon Press, 2016) a memoir (I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal, Repeater Books, 2021) and an historical novel (The Pirate Queen, Stairwell Books, 2022). The State of Us (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023) is his first collection of short stories. He sometimes teaches experimental fiction and is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

Peak Jack

A short story about the guy who made everyone in Brighton start dressing like lumberjacks in the early 2010s, published today in wonderful Brighton-based zine Flights.

It’s so rare I get time to write and submit short fiction at the moment that this feels like a real achievement, even if it is just a silly little parable.

‘Peak Jack’, a five minute read. Published here for free:

Joe Bedford – Flight of the dragonfly

INTERVIEW: Alison Macleod on imagination, self-surveillance and ‘Tenderness’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Alison Macleod on the research process behind her novel Tenderness (Bloomsbury, 2022).

First off, I feel like Tenderness is an absolute goldmine for an interview series based on research. The breadth of historical and literary reference is reflected not just in the many anecdotes from which the novel draws but also in your careful characterisation of DH Lawrence, Jackie Kennedy and the other real-life characters. I know that your work on Tenderness covered several years, but I’m curious to know where you found the spark of your original idea. Was the novel founded in the literary ‘detective work’ you refer to in your Author’s Note, or in a more personal place?

Yes, the research was immersive – for me, vast, deep and revelatory.  Others used to remark on how disciplined I was to undertake such work – across archives, locations, countries and years – but, for me, it was absorbing and gripping, so little discipline was required.

Nor did I feel alone in that labour – and don’t get me wrong, it was a huge labour.  From the start, I felt the presence – or the generous company – of a story that wanted to be.  It already existed in some dimension, and my role was to usher it across, from something like that which Aristotle dubbed ‘the potentia’, into the here and now.  To draw it down.  I don’t engage in a major project until I have an almost visceral, across-the-back-of-my-neck sense that a story already has a form of life independent of me.  I and it then work together to give it expression.

It’s this act of faith that sustains me through the labour of writing – and the business of surviving as I write, often against the odds.  It is, in one sense, madness to spend five years researching and writing a book for which – if the work were costed per hour and the payment assessed – one would be earning far less than the national minimum wage.  Yet, as I say, it is fundamentally an act of faith.  Such instincts form a daily part of the real and grounded experiences of writers.  They also defy – and exceed – academic descriptors for research that characterise institutional exercises, such as the REF.

But I’ll back-track a bit.  In terms of that ‘spark’ you mention, yes, there was a decisive moment when I knew there was a book to write: the moment I discovered the little-known fact that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had tried to prevent the 1959 American publication of the complete/unexpurgated manuscript of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Ultimately, the Bureau failed in its censorship efforts, but it did go on to support the British Prosecution team’s case, in the infamous 1960 trial of Penguin Books, the ‘Lady Chatterley trial’.

It struck me as extraordinary that a novel – an act of the artistic imagination – could preoccupy the FBI in the middle of the Cold War.  I wanted to know why.  It ran deeper, I think, than even the issues relating to freedom of speech.  In many censorship cases, where government power drives the ban, it’s clear what the perceived threat is.  But while the explicit sexuality  of Lawrence’s final novel threatened mid-century societal norms, it seemed to me that something more had to be going on in the FBI’s efforts to shut down the book.

The imagination is the gateway to self-invention; to the creation of our own inner lives and worlds.  Lawrence himself genuinely couldn’t understand the threat posed by what he saw as the honest depictions of human sexuality.  Yet still, he called Lady Chatterley’s Lover a ‘bomb’ of a book.  He believed that the most radical content was the story of two lovers who succeeded – through the honesty of a loving union – to give up on social and class convention and to determine the shapes of their own lives.  For Lawrence, the novel itself, as a literary form, was ‘the bright book of life’ because of its unique capacity, not merely to mimic life, but to engender life in its rhythms, flux and pulse-beats of language, image and consciousness.

For reasons I’m not altogether sure of, the power of the imagination – and society’s neglect of that power – is the concern that drives my work.  It is a portal, and life is diminished when we cease to recognise it.

The actions of the FBI in the 1950s lay the ground for the erosions to democracy that shock us today: election manipulation, surveillance of citizens and cries of ‘fake news’.  When we neglect the power of the personal imagination – and the curiosity about the world that it inspires – society becomes vulnerable to the dark imaginations, reductionism and manipulations of those who, for systemic reasons, can more readily climb to power.  This state of affairs has long been a personal concern for me.  I’m not sure why – except that I’ve been aware since childhood that the gifts of the imagination are a birth right of all.  When it is ‘attended to’ it is a ‘receiver’: a state of deep consciousness that connects us, acutely and thrillingly, to everything from the stillness of the stone on a beach to the pulsing stars overhead.

To put those very powerful words about the imagination aside for the moment, I’m interested in your choice to integrate non-speculative (that is, already extant) material from DH Lawrence’s prose, poetry and letters into Tenderness. An interchange between your words and his runs throughout the entire novel, separated only by discrete typefaces, which opens what you call a ‘dialogue’ with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other texts. Perhaps you could tell us a little more about what brought you to the decision to open that dialogue, and about the opportunities and challenges you found as you worked with the source material.

Initially, my plan was simply to introduce enough of the text of  Lady Chatterley’s Lover into Tenderness that any reader who hadn’t read LCL wouldn’t feel excluded from the experience of my novel.  Indeed, I hope it does look after the reader in that way.

But that working plan quickly gave way to something more.  I realised I could involve readers, at a dramatic level, in an active experience of Lawrence’s creation of LCL.  I wanted to offer them the line-by-line exhilaration and struggle of the making of a story.  I wanted to acquaint them intimately with the influences behind it, the beauty, the betrayals, the mean-mindedness, and the love.  I wanted my reader almost to see the wet ink on the page.  In this way, not only would they be given an intimate experience of creation, they would also understand just how much was actually at stake by the end of Tenderness, when we arrive at the scenes of the 1960 Old Bailey trial.  In my novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover becomes, I suppose, a palimpsest through which I can show the reader the other stories, poems and experiences that fed, stream-like, into that watershed moment.

In opening up the story of the day-by-day writing of Lawrence’s short story ‘England, my England’, I also hoped I’d be able to show the reader how Lady Chatterley’s Lover is actually less about sex than about Lawrence’s long preoccupation with the trauma of the First World War.  For example, in Tenderness, I initially give the reader the little-known story of his story ‘England, my England’ (especially the first version), which reveals his horror of what he sensed, from 1914, would be mass ‘industrialised’ slaughter.  At the time, Lawrence was recovering from a breakdown brought on by the declaration of war.  Twelve years later, as he begins to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he is writing ‘England, my England’s’ conclusion or its ‘book-end’ – a vision of how his traumatised nation might heal itself after war through a radical form of tenderness.  This vision has, it seems to me, never been adequately explored in criticism or in popular discussions of LCL.  Yet he was dying as he wrote LCL, and that was the hope he held out, torch-like, to the future against his own despair – and vision that another war was coming.

Also, in the course of my research into the circumstances surrounding Lawrence and ‘England, my England’, I came to understand that Frieda Lawrence was not the most influential ‘model’ for Lady Chatterley, as is generally assumed.  Of course there are loose parallels, but the actual model was a woman called Rosalind Baynes, with whom Lawrence had a brief affair in 1920.  In working ‘close-up’ with her privately published memoir, with the text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and with Lawrence’s ‘San Gervasio’ poems, I was astonished to see the degree of her influence and inspiration.  I wanted to share this with the reader.  I wanted to give her or him a sense of how vibrant and multi-layered any powerful act of creation is.

Issues of what we now call ‘research ethics’ are an explicit theme in Tenderness, explored most obviously through the background behind ‘England, My England’, as mentioned. Lawrence was of course notorious for cannibalising the lives of his friends and loved ones for use within his narratives, causing repeated upset in his appropriation of their public and private sufferings. I’m curious to know how you handled the use of real-life material in Tenderness, and whether you had ethical concerns in drawing from the lives of those whose families (or at least descendants) may still be alive.

Yes, I certainly gave it a lot of thought.  I admire Lawrence’s single-minded daring –  for the sake of his work – and I dislike him for it.  His imagination usually needed to be fuelled by living models.  Lawrence, as you say, often cannibalised the outward details of a person’s life – as he did for the main characters of ‘England, my England’.  His specific cruelty, in my view, lay in the often flagrant distortions he then introduced into his rendering of their inner lives or personal worlds.  In other words, a character could often be easily identified as an actual friend or individual in literary circles; yet that outward characterisation would often be ‘filled’ with a nature or motives that Lawrence invented.  For example, the (in reality) loving couple in ‘England, my England’ are depicted as characters with a hollow, bitter sham of a marriage.  He also used, as a plot device, a secret, private tragedy experienced by that family, one he had learned of while staying with them as their guest – while enjoying their very generous hospitality.  The result, ‘England, my England, is a powerful story but, for the family, the wound ran deep across generations.

In my depiction of that same family, I was lucky to be aided by one of its members living today.  In my novel, I show them in an unfailingly generous light – simply because there is no evidence, even from Lawrence, that they were anything but generous.  I also depict the character of the child Mary and her genuinely fond relationship with Lawrence – to show that no situation is homogeneous.  Lawrence wasn’t only exploitative, in other words.  He was generous with Mary.

In an incidental way, I probably wanted, in some small way, to expose the injustice of Lawrence’s depiction – and that dark aspect of creation.  I can’t – and don’t believe I should – claim to know what the ethical stance of other writers should be.

Unlike Lawrence, I won’t distort or falsify for the sake of a story.  It’s straightforward for me.  I’m simply not interested in falsifying history because I’m vitally interested in what did happen.  If I want or need to invent – to show wider truths – I simply invent a character, as I did with my lone FBI agent Mel Harding, although, even for him, I relied on extensive research into FBI training and culture in the 1950s.

I felt a little sad revealing what I did about Rebecca West’s real-life efforts to put the defence team off the case.  It wasn’t her proudest moment.  But I had found the letters that proved it, and I had permission from her executor to use them.  Even if I hadn’t, I probably would have found another way to introduce that information because it was 1) true, 2) fascinating, given that it runs counter to the received picture of West as a star witness for the Defence – complexity is what I’m after; and 3) it was an important and overlooked part of the literary-historical record.

I often get this sort of question in relation to Jackie Kennedy – I find that interesting.  I myself usually feel it might be more relevant, for example, in relation to the child character of Mary, who was a real-life private individual.  For her character, for example, I took immense trouble to compile the miscellaneous accounts of her that are scattered across letters, diary entries and the biographies of others.  I wanted to be scrupulous about Mary – and to convey her delight in life, above all – because she was a private person I wanted to honour and here, a child.  Mary is only a delight in my handling.  Had that handling not been possible, I probably would have excluded her from my story.

My approach to Jackie Kennedy is not dissimilar.  I had few qualms about drawing her into my story because, in life, she was a great admirer of Lawrence’s novels.  She was only ever to be a heroine of sorts in Tenderness, willing ‘Lady Chatterley’ on in spite of the government and the FBI’s efforts to ban her.  Jackie Kennedy also functions as the character who bridges the otherwise seemingly disparate narratives of Lawrence and Hoover.  I say ‘seemingly’ because, as strange as those names sound in one sentence, I realised that history connected these two figures – and I still love the surprise truth of that.

Yet even with these (benign?) intentions, I was mindful that I wanted to remain true and attentive to the details of Jackie Kennedy’s life and marriage in the period of my novel.  To build up a sense of her personal, pre-White House life, I introduce the facts of John F. Kennedy’s war record, his serial philandering, his well-documented sexual appetites, and the Kennedys’ little-known and largely forgotten agreement to separate had he not won the Democratic nomination in 1960.

By spending time ‘inhabiting’ the truths of this period – all of it on the historical record – I was able to evoke how Jackie Kennedy is likely to have felt as she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the story of another lonely, young wife with a powerful war-hero husband.  I’m speculating, of course, but, crucially for me at least, I’m not distorting what was known, even at the time, about the Kennedy marriage.

I think what would surprise most readers about Tenderness is how much is not invented.  I worked intensively with historical details and timelines no reader will ever know I’ve been faithful to.  Still, I did so – out of respect for the lives of real individuals and because it’s the reality of extraordinary facts that, often, makes me want to write.

I’ll then evoke and recreate those histories as meaningfully as possible, using all the talent and energy I have.  To dream up or distort a set of facts simply to be sensational or dramatic would bore me, frankly.

As I suggest above, I will, very occasionally, allow myself to speculate scenically on the page: e.g. what if Jackie Kennedy, as a former journalist, slipped into the back row of a hearing for the sake of an author and a book she loved?  I allow myself to speculate in this way because 1) it won’t break with – or break – any actual historical/public timeline; 2) it will be a ‘scene-based corollary’ to Jackie Kennedy’s actual admiration of Lawrence’s work – i.e., she is not distorted in the process, and 3) this is the ‘bridging action’ that is going to allow me to show the reader something much more significant and truthful, i.e. the FBI’s dark history of censorship, citizen surveillance, intimidation, blackmail and political manipulation.

I admit I worry sometimes about all the fear for emerging writers around issues of ethics and sensitivities.  When I work with these writers, such issues are often, today, the first questions that come up in discussions of creativity.  It really saddens me to see the anxiety and the instinct, first, for self-surveillance rather than risk-taking, experiment or delight in the play of ideas.

I worry that, in both the academy and in wider society, we are losing sight of what ‘artistic transformation’ means – about its potentially redemptive power.  I worry that the academy – along with government policy in 2023 – is playing a role in the downgrading of those very qualities that underlie the Humanities and humanity – imagination, curiosity, artistic insight and vision.  I’m very much involved, as I think I’ve shown above, in original research discoveries that can be accredited in one’s academic life.  Yet, as thrilled as I am by, say, a research discovery I make in an archive, and by my ability to interpret it, I remain conscious that this form of ‘knowledge production’ is easier and less significant work than the infinitely less ‘describable’ labour of imaginative transformation on the page.

The question of ethics is complicated, and it should be.  Nevertheless, I fear that, if the writing of the lives of others is increasingly problematised or frowned upon by authorities such as ethics panels, we’ll all soon be locked into writing auto-fiction only; that we’ll be encouraged to disparage male writers, such as Lawrence, who made female voices and female consciousness his central interest; that we’ll be told we must only research the lives of those of our own gender, race, class and time; that the vitally wild mind of art and literature will be impoverished through ‘supervision’; that, eventually, the extraordinary power of the human imagination will be less and less understood, even in – or perhaps especially in – the academy.

I have to say that so many of the descriptions of McCarthyite America, as well as the eras of Lawrence’s international censorship battles, resonated with my own feelings of disappointment and fear, specifically in 2020s Britain. Building on your insights above, did you intend to shine a light on our current political climate? And if so, did your research into the structures of power that hang over Tenderness alter your view of how contemporary society is managed and maintained?

Absolutely.  I’m so glad that came through for you from between the lines of Tenderness.  Whenever I’m writing of a certain historical period, I’m also writing about ‘now’, if aslant.  It was the reason, above all, that I wanted to write Tenderness.  Here was another time, the 1950s, when democracy was being threatened, not by external states, but from actors and actions within the democratic body politic – by authoritarian ‘strong men’ leaders, by the manufacture of counterfactual ‘facts’, by populist rhetoric.  I was writing Tenderness at a time of Brexit campaign lies, ‘take back control’ rhetoric, Cambridge Analytica, the rise of Trump, pro-Trump election interference by the Russians, and so on.  I’d never known a time when we’ve become so preoccupied by facts versus ‘fake news’ – and so ill equipped to discern the truth behind the political lies.  Tenderness is, for me, the story of the struggle between freedom of speech and freedom of the imagination, and authoritarian impulses within democracy – for me, a crucial concern in the 21st century.

I believe that the human imagination, across all fields – and curiosity, the wellspring of the imagination – is our innate ‘detector’ for the truth, in all its complexity.  But we find ourselves increasingly divorced from this natural divining rod as we doom-scroll through 24/7 newsfeeds; as we pivot from tweet to tweet; from uncertainty to polarised position; as we lose the attention spans needed to hold (and to co-create) complex creations and truths in our minds; as we lose our eons-old understanding that imagined worlds are about more than entertainment or social lessons fed to us on screens.

This said, I remain ever hopeful.  Stories are somehow bigger than we are – brighter and wiser too.  In spite of the times in which we live and the challenges we face in 2023, the imagination will, I believe, prevail.  I think it will, not only because it has a life and an intelligence of its own – for which writers and artists are mere conduits – but because our survival might depend on our ability to live and work together on the same small planet.  It’s a situation that demands nuance and understanding, and that begins with your story, my story, his, hers and theirs – with one great web of stories.  I believe we’ll have to rediscover that even the facts, as crucial as they are, must sometimes give way to truths, and that the imagination has its own urgent, very real wisdom.  It’s not escapist.  It takes us deeper into the complexities, knots and marvels of reality.

Finally, and tied to the above, I feel as though the sense of verisimilitude in the novel is partly rooted in the large web of influence and consequence you build around Lawrence and Kennedy. At the centre of this web seems to be a maxim that you give to the literary critic Professor Trilling, that ‘the emotional sphere [cannot] be separated from the political sphere, and that the political [cannot] be separated from the world of art and literature’ (p.226). In some ways I think your handling of your research reinforces this dynamic, but I’d like to ask specifically whether you experienced this sense of interconnectedness in your writing process. Do you feel there is any duty for writers to reflect this dynamic, or is interconnectedness an intrinsic, perhaps unconscious, manifestation of a wider truth?

It always seems obvious to me that politics and public history are intricately entwined with the personal histories of its players and even with the history of intimacy itself; that we are either naïve or false to pretend otherwise.  Our inner lives are the products of our psychologies, but they are also created by us, and are the products of our desires and our imaginations.  I very much agree with Lionel Trilling in the above.  (He did believe that the honing of the imagination was crucial if we weren’t to fall prey to the predatory imaginations of those seeking power.). For me, ‘giving life’ on the page to the idea that public history is steeped in private histories, and vice versa, is the imperative or drive – if not the duty – behind each of my novels.

If a writer is committed to honesty on the page – a more demanding thing to capture than one might think – and if that writer succeeds, then this interconnectedness will emerge, naturally as you say, and in myriad ways.  It will emerge differently for every writer; one can never be prescriptive or even think of one’s ‘duty’, I’d suggest.  The process has to be organic and, at least initially, ‘wild’, untamed or ungoverned.  The story must be given the space to steer itself.

For example, my novel Unexploded explores a particular period in the Second World War in relation to the issues of ‘casual racism’ that were disturbing me in the period that was about to give way to the Brexit campaign period.  In that novel, as in Tenderness, it was, for me, as important that I pay as much attention to the private or intimate history of my characters as to the public history of 1940-41 in Brighton, while the town awaited an enemy landing on the beach.

Why was it as important?  Well, it seems to me that the healing force against any darkness within the body politic must begin with a certain radicality in the heart of an individual or individuals.  Art and the imagination are restorative, not because they represent ‘civilisation’ or some cherished ideal of it, but simply because they don’t turn away from the truth.  They hold it.  They enact it.  They allow us to engage deeply with its complexity, along with a dynamic sense of life and how extraordinary life really is.

Few will read Unexploded and wonder if I was trying to explore a society that was about to turn inward towards its darker aspects that coalesced around the Brexit campaign.  Few will read Tenderness and wonder if I was actually troubled by Cambridge Analytica and social-media manipulation of the referendum.  No one needs to, I hope – even though I was.  A novel shouldn’t preach.  It’s not a lesson or a sermon.  It’s an experience.  Yet I do hope that, in the midst of that experience, my readers will feel that my novels resonate, between the lines, from the events of history to the very heart of Now.

Alison MacLeod is the author of four novels, including Unexploded – longlisted for the Man Booker Prize – and Tenderness, a New York Times Historical Fiction Best Book of 2021 and a Sunday Times Best Paperback of 2022. She has also published two story collections. The latter, All the Beloved Ghosts, was shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Edge Hill Prize. MacLeod is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and an occasional contributor to outlets such as BBC Radio 4, The Sunday Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph. A senior academic and Professor of Contemporary Fiction at the University of Chichester until 2018, she now contributes to Chichester as Visiting Professor.

alison-macleod.com

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Douglas Bruton on Larkin, the subconscious and ‘With or Without Angels’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Douglas Bruton on the research process behind his novella With or Without Angels (Fairlight Books, 2023).

In With or Without Angels, we encounter what I would describe as an active dialogue between fiction and fine art, specifically between the narrative of the novella and the work of real-life artist Alan Smith. Before we move on to Alan himself, I’m curious to get your general perspective on the relationship between fiction and art. What is it, for example, that fiction can achieve that art cannot, and vice versa? And is there a tension there between the manufacture and the negotiation of meaning, as we find in your creative commentary on Alan’s work?

I should say at the outset that I graduated with a degree in English only to return to education about five years after that to get a degree in art. I never really thought of myself as a writer back then but as a reader; however, I was at the time always an artist (at some level at least). I do not know if this is an influence on the subject matter of my writing now that I am older.

I went to art college in search of some way of expressing myself creatively. It felt important to me. I ended up writing something at art college that I intended to illustrate. What I discovered in that process was that I was expressing myself more obviously in the writing than I was in the art. Art and writing are both creative outlets and maybe they come from the same inner source; for me writing just allowed me more effectively to access that source. It took two degrees and more than ten years for me to reach this conclusion.

I have written a lot of conventional work over the years but more recently I have found that I am drawn to explore different ways of telling stories, experimenting with structure and form, playing. That bit, for me just now, is fun even when the narrative tackles more serious issues. I write fairly intensely when I am embarked on a project – With or Without Angels was written in just over a week and my previous book (Blue Postcards) was written in six days. I don’t do much, if any, editing after the work is down on the page. When I am writing, I can get into a ‘zone’ where it just flows out of me – up to 9000 words in a day. I do not really give much attention to meaning, but am more interested in the narrative. I write like a reader, wanting to know what happens and having to write to find out. I trust that my creative subconscious will take care of the ‘clever’ stuff in the work (if there is any clever stuff), the meaning if you like. I guess that allows me to sidestep questions of meaning in the way that the old artist in With or Without Angels does; besides, what one person gets out of a work – the ‘meaning’ – is often very personal to them and different from what another person might get and not even what the writer thought was the meaning.

I realise that I have not yet answered your question about what art can achieve that fiction cannot, and vice versa. I’m fumbling about for something cogent to say here. For me narrative is an important part of fiction; art is not bound by this. Both fiction and art communicate to me, both move me, so both have meaning. I sense that fiction and art come from the same inner place and so they sort of do the same thing, only using different tools. That’s about as near to an answer as I can get on this one.

To return to Alan Smith not as an artist but as an individual, I’m interested in how you chose to approach Alan as a subject. Your narration is third person, but with a close focus on Alan himself and with a speculative insight into his thoughts and feelings. Was there a moral question there in embodying Alan as a subject? How did you handle that proximity to real life and to the people Alan knew and loved?

So, at the end of With or Without Angels I tell you ‘where the idea came from’: I met Alan Smith’s widow at a social event. She encouraged me to look up Alan Smith’s work online, which I later did. I can’t explain what happened next. I wasn’t looking for a subject to write about. I found these two people, the late Alan Smith and his wife, very engaging and interesting and Alan’s works got into my head (like an earworm). I engaged with his work, pored over his pictures, then felt compelled to do something in response. Inspirare – from which we get the word ‘inspiration’ – means to inhale or breathe in; With or Without Angels is my breathing out again after breathing in Alan Smith’s works.

Actually, I did not write this work for publication; I wrote it because I felt I had to. It would have found a place in a folder on my computer and rested there. But I subsequently sent it to Alan’s widow and it was she who encouraged me to ‘put it out there’.

I hope I have made clear in the work that this is a creative response and not an attempt to portray the real artist and his wife – that’s why the old artist and his wife are not named. Indeed, there is more of me in the old artist than anything else. In the book I also direct readers to go and ‘see’ Alan’s work for themselves so that they might have something of the experience I’d had and that motivated the writing of the book, an experience that inevitably spilled into and informed the book. I also acknowledge in the book that this is a ‘collaborative’ work. I hope I have been sensitive to the real people in my writing of this book; they have all assured me that I have.

One of the key preoccupations of With or Without Angels is that of memory and imagination, which I would argue provoke an interesting echo in the photographs and photomontages that pepper the novella. Alan Smith’s series The New World could be read as an exercise in augmented memory, or the point of exchange between memory (or perhaps record) and imagination. How do you feel about this, and might there be an echo there of the wider project of With or Without Angels?

Yes, this is an important preoccupation of mine at the moment. Not that I set out to explore this particular issue when starting to write, but memory and the part played by the imagination in memory is something in my head, rattling about; and being so preoccupied with this it is inevitably pushed into the creative subconscious and then resurfaces in my writing. Maybe it’s something to do with where I am in my life – nearer to my end than my beginning – and I often bump up against failings of memory, not just my own. And I am so often witness to how the holes in memory get filled by the imagination so that in the end the memory cannot really be trusted. It does not bother me that memory is so unreliable, but it interests me. The fact that this is also there in Alan Smith’s work, at some level, only serves to add credence to the answer I gave to one of your first questions – that there is little difference to what art and fiction can achieve.

Another theme that helps establish the resonance of both The New World and of art in general is the idea that ‘Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us’ (p. 103) and indeed survive our art. I’m interested to know how that applies not just to The New World or the original Tiepolo fresco which was its partial inspiration, but to your own writing. Where is the enduring love in your work, either as a catalyst or a product, and how does the value of that love affect your writing?

This is a tricky one for me to answer. The line suited the work I had written.

I have children. They are grown up now. The love that will survive me when I am gone is, I hope, in them. And I think when we are assessing our lives it is that love that outweighs everything else and is therefore important. If we think of that love as passing on and on from one generation to the next then it goes on forever even when we are forgotten or are little more than an obscure name on a lost family tree.

But then again the work, if we are very lucky, has a chance to survive us for a lot longer. After all, we still read ancient texts.

‘What will survive of us is love’ is something Larkin said in one of his poems. I am always a little unsure of the absolute sincerity of Larkin. It makes a very ‘cute’ soundbite, this line, but I am not sure that I fully trust its meaning. Larkin did not have children so his work will, I think, survive longer than his ‘love’.

But whilst we are still alive, then perhaps ‘love’ is more important than the work and so there is a sort of truth in the line, a hopeful truth.

As for my work; Blue Postcards was reviewed by Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman newspaper. In his summing up he described the book as ‘clever and kind’. I think I put a lot of myself into my work and I hope that there is ‘kindness’ in my writing, and love, and I hope that if my works last beyond me that the love and kindness in my writing will continue to resonate. If it does, then some part of me survives.

I’d like to close by asking a question with which I had originally intended to start our conversation, but decided to hold back. On page 59 we find an aphorism attributed to Publilius Syrus: ‘Not every question deserves an answer’, appearing after a brief meditation on the worry of answering questions like ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and ‘How would you define your work?’ In the context of being asked questions like this now, by someone who asks questions like this for a living, how do you feel about the value of interrogating writers or artists on their work? If there is value here at all?

Great question. I am not sure that I will speak sense here, but I will try. I put a lot of faith in my own creative subconscious. It is that part of me that solves the last clue in the crossword puzzle, the clue that my conscious brain has struggled with and given up on, and the creative subconscious suddenly gets it and punts the answer into the front of my thinking even when I am no longer looking for the solution. Since I also access the creative subconscious when I am ‘creating’ I feel I should defer to that part of my brain to answer questions about the meaning in my work and all your questions too, but the creative subconscious is publicly shy. So, the best qualified part of me to answer your questions – all questions pertaining to the work – is asleep or hiding, which makes my attempts to answer your questions sub-standard at best. Whether there is value in that (in my answers) to you or to any reader, well, that’s for you to say. Personally, I think the work should stand on its own two feet. Everything else is just PR and not to be trusted (I don’t trust Larkin; nor do I trust myself – and nor should you!)

Douglas Bruton’s work has appeared in various publications including Northwords Now, New Writing Scotland, Aesthetica and The Irish Literary Review. His short stories have won competitions including with Fish and The Neil Gunn Prize. His children’s novel, The Chess Piece Magician published by Floris Books (2009), was shortlisted for The Heart of Hawick Book Award 2010; his literary fiction debut, Mrs Winchester’s Gun Club, was published by Scotland Street Press (2019); Blue Postcards, longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022, was published by Fairlight Books (2021); With or Without Angels is also published by Fairlight Books (2023).

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Katie Oliver on butterflies, the Twitter takeover and ‘I Wanted to be Close to You’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Katie Oliver on the research process behind her collection I Wanted to be Close to You (Fly on The Wall Press, 2022).

I Wanted to be Close to You put me in mind of a conversation I had last year with the author Alice Ash, in which she mentioned how her hyperrealist style lent itself to themes of ‘fixation and obsession’. I feel like some of the stories in your collection mirror this sentiment, in that they sometimes turn up the contrast or colour of the world in a similar way as some psychological/emotional phenomena do, particularly obsession and paranoia. Does that resonate with you at all? What does it mean to you, if anything, to write hyperreality?

Now, it’s funny you should mention Alice Ash, as when seeking blurbs she was one of the very first people I asked! I didn’t think she’d say yes but was delighted when she did, because I love her writing. Re: hyperrealism, that’s a very interesting question. I don’t think it’s something I was consciously aiming for, but on reflection it does describe how I write. I enjoy dialling up the sensory elements of my writing in unusual and grotesque ways – I’m particularly thinking of one of the stories in my collection, ‘Becoming’. I won’t give spoilers, but if I say ‘the worm scene’ you’ll know what I mean! Additionally, fixation and obsession are certainly common themes within my writing, as is the frequent sense that we aren’t entirely sure what is real and what is a figment of the characters’ imaginations. I’m interested in exploring how far people can go in terms of convincing themselves that they can get what they want – whether that’s bringing back a loved one or metamorphosing into a different body.

I’m glad you mentioned metamorphosis, as I feel like the hyperreality in I Wanted to be Close to You is tied in some ways is your approach to nature, particularly in the way you play with devices like anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. I’m curious to know how you handled your exploration of these points of interchange (the animal-in-humans and potentially the human-in-animals), especially in the way the collection repeatedly challenges popular nature metaphors such as the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Now this was something I was very conscious about doing. I’m an absolute nature lover and am never happier than when walking in the woods or searching for shells on the beach, but I was very clear on wanting to subvert the ‘escape to nature/nature as healing’ tropes that we often see. There’s nothing wrong with those – I was just interested in pushing it the other way. The most explicit subversion of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis metaphor is in the story ‘You can’t kill it because it’s already dead’. I actually got the inspiration for this from years ago when I worked in a school – we had one of those kits where you get caterpillars and watch them as they build and then hatch out of their chrysalides. All went well apart from one poor creature where something hadn’t gone quite right for it and its wings were all wasted, and it died. It was absolutely horrible and the image has stayed with me for years. I feel like the more deeply I immerse myself in the natural world, the more I realise how dangerous, powerful and heartbreaking it can be, whether it’s a poisonous mushroom or a tsunami (or indeed, a doomed butterfly) and in my writing I almost wanted to pay tribute to that. There’s already such a tension between humans and the natural world – as a species we’re generally doing a great job of destroying it and the fanciful part of me feels like nature is just sitting there waiting to fully unleash. See, I’ve personified her again!

I’ve always identified intensely with animals and I’m a huge fan of stories told through their eyes – The Bees by Lalline Paul springs to mind as a favourite – it’s a thriller narrated by a bee trying to hide her secret baby and I would totally recommend it!

In terms of the animal-in-human, I think my interest in this comes from a really natural desire to change, to be someone or something else. The characters in my stories who morph in some way are all escaping something, whether that’s trauma, a bad relationship or simple dissatisfaction with their lives.

Stepping aside from nature for the moment, another theme that jumped out at me was your imaginative handling of complex future technologies, particularly domestic ones. Several stories revolve around characters negotiating their relationships with new body-technologies, often with irreversibly damaging effect. What is your attitude to current and future technologies, especially in regards to their interactions with the human body? Does our attitude to body-technologies need to change?

AI and body technologies are a true fascination of mine – I’m endlessly drawn to learning about them, but equally repelled! The main thing is that while the technology out there is incredibly impressive, I think we can have no real idea of what the actual consequences will be until it’s far too late. I can’t help but invoke the iconic Jurassic Park quote: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” I recently read an article entitled ‘AI experts are increasingly afraid of what they are creating’, which says it all, really. For anyone interested in reading more around the subject, I highly recommend the brilliant To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell.

Leading on from that, one of the repeated approaches to the theme of the body in I Wanted to be Close to You regards your complex handling of the female body, particularly in terms of its vulnerability. In several stories, the female body is stripped of its agency by forces outside each woman’s control – either with the threat of physical assault, the mob judgement of social media, the sometimes-surreal realities of childbirth and motherhood, or with issues of body-belonging within an intimate relationship. As something you write so deftly and passionately about, I’d like to know how you navigated your own thoughts and feelings around agency and the female body. Were there challenges there?

I actually didn’t find it challenging in an emotional sense – it was more cathartic than anything. It is certainly an angry book: it isn’t a safe world out there for women and progress on e.g. reproductive rights has gone hugely backwards of late, so I wanted to write about it (my story ‘Underbelly’ directly refers to this – I wrote it postpartum after a pretty difficult birth). My relationship with writing pretty much all boils down to either processing my emotions or escaping them. ‘TimeOut’ is another story that seems to resonate with people – it links to the previous question about AI and tech. I wrote it when my son was eight months old and I was psychotic from sleep deprivation. I think I almost needed to fictionally present myself with the dream solution and then talk myself down from it by demonstrating how it actually definitely wouldn’t have been a good idea to turn my baby off with a dodgy app. Catharsis indeed!

We touched briefly on social media there, but to close I’d like to dig into that a little further. Twitter in particular has a recurring presence within the collection, handled within the stories in variegated ways. Naturally, these stories were written before Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, so I’m curious to know if your attitudes towards the app have since changed? How has social media fed into your life as a writer, and in your opinion is there any possibility of it being a force for good in the future?

I was so annoyed when he took over! For the obvious reasons, of course, but when the future of the app was looking very uncertain at the start I was slightly worried my book would be historical fiction before it had even come out…

In terms of social media feeding into my life as a writer, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve made so many great connections, found my writing group and gained genuine friends from my interactions. I don’t have many writing friends in ‘real life’ and I think it’s so essential to find people to share work with, push you towards deadlines and pick you up after rejections. While social media in general can be an absolute bin, the online writing community is mostly a warm and supportive place. I’ve recently joined Instagram (I have a book to sell) and am actually really enjoying the Bookstagram element, but I have to stay away from the reels on the homepage or else I’ll get sucked into eight hours of watching someone blend their eyeshadow or document their bikini body journey. That’s the real negative side of it for me – the timewasting and toxic body image stuff that’s shoved in your face on a constant basis. It’s the digital equivalent of being accosted by the perfume and makeup sample people at the entrance of a department store. Algorithm, if you’re listening – I do not want bum implants, thank you.

Katie Oliver is a writer based in South West Kerry. Her fiction has been shortlisted in several competitions, including the Bridport Prize and the Short Fiction/Essex University Wild Writing Prize, and her poetry is published in various online and print journals. Her debut short fiction collection I Wanted to be Close to You was published by Fly on The Wall Press in December 2022. She is currently working on her next collection and has work forthcoming in Holy Show later in 2023.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.