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.