INTERVIEW: Steve Hollyman on masculinity, The Streets and ‘LAIRIES’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Steve Hollyman on the research process behind his novel LAIRIES (Influx Press, 2021).

As someone who grew up into the same kind of nightlife described so vividly in LAIRIES, I found a lot of the action eerily reminiscent of encounters I’ve had in these environments. I wondered how you might have used your own experience in designing the novel, and more generally how you feel personal experience might complement or challenge the process of researching for fiction.

There’s lots of stuff in there that’s based on personal experience – stuff that I observed and conversations I overheard; anecdotes that I heard second- or third-hand from other people – and, of course, the experience of getting beaten up a couple of times just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I never really liked going to nightclubs – I much preferred going to pubs or gigs – but I invariably found myself getting dragged out on the town by my mates. There was a really uncomfortable edginess to it back then – the feeling that something might kick off at any minute, and often it did.

But there’s a sort of ridiculousness to it as well, and that’s what I wanted to get across in the novel. I didn’t want the violence to seem macho or choreographed. It was really important for it to be messy and brutal and nasty. I was listening to The Streets a lot at the time – the first album, Original Pirate Material, is the perfect soundtrack to LAIRIES.

I also got a lot of help from others, to fill the gaps in my own experience. I spent a bit of time hanging round police stations and stuff. I can’t quite remember how it came about, but I basically walked into a local police station, a scruffy 22-year-old in a hoodie, and said, ‘I’m writing a book about yob culture. Can you tell me what’s what?’ They were very accommodating, and some of the officers let me interview them, despite regarding me with slight suspicion at first. I asked one of them to pepper spray me, so I could see what it felt like, but they obviously refused. I interviewed someone who’d been in a coma, someone with a traumatic brain injury sustained in a cycling accident. I spoke to an expert in regression hypnosis. All these topics are explored in the novel, and I took it really seriously. I felt that it was my duty to at least try and get it right.

The book was written in fits and starts – on the train, on my lunch break at work, and, mostly, in the pub at night. Sometimes, the pub would be packed and there’d be strangers sitting at the same table as me, trying to see what I was writing. I clearly remember someone saying to me, ‘Oi, what the fuck are you doing on that laptop? Looking at porn?’ I wasn’t interested in finding a quiet place to write. I can’t write while I’m listening to music, or with headphones in. I always want to be right in the middle of something, because it somehow helps me to focus. I don’t find writing relaxing at all. There’s something about it that makes me feel quite aggressive.

Yes, I think that sense of being ‘in the middle of something’ comes through in the novel’s very direct handling of the characters and their inner-worlds. As well as being a kind of social case study in the tradition of Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, LAIRIES also feels like an experiment in multiplicity, playing freely with narrative voice and POV. What were the challenges of creating and maintaining the novel’s diversity of voice?

For some reason, I find it extremely difficult to write in the third person, even though most writers I know say it’s the place where they feel most comfortable. It might come from the fact I kept diaries and journals from the age of about 11, which were always written in the first-person. I knew right from the outset that it was going to be a multi-stranded novel, with different voices. I knew that each of those voices had to be distinct, and that it would be further complicated by the fact they’re all male, all from the same town, all roughly the same age, and all narrating their version of the same events. Duncan’s voice came very naturally and effortlessly. Colbeck’s was more difficult to get right, but as soon as I switched it to the second person (it was originally first person present) it just clicked. Then there’s other stuff that a writer can use to create space between voices – stuff like speech marks vs. no speech marks, past tense vs. present tense, quirky bits of idiolect, and so on. I used every tool at my disposal.

You mentioned that all the narrative voices are occupied by male characters, so it seems natural that masculinity should be such a dominant theme within the novel. I’m curious as to how you approached this in a literary sense. How well do you feel masculinity is handled in contemporary literature? And to what extent is the novel as a form adept at confronting some of masculinity’s more difficult (and of course violent) manifestations?

It seems to me like there aren’t many books like LAIRIES out there at the moment – either because writers aren’t writing them or because publishers aren’t publishing them, or both – and it’s always puzzled me as to why. LAIRIES was exactly the sort of book I wanted to read when I was twenty years old, and that’s precisely why I wrote it. It’s set in 2003 and a lot of it was written between 2006 and 2009, so at the time I was working on it I was much closer to the era I’m describing. But reading it now, I think it has more impact than it ever would have done a decade ago. I was speaking to a mate of mine a couple of months ago, and we agreed that attitudes were so different in 2003 that this novel might as well be a period piece. And it’s stronger for it, I think. There’s a quote from J.G. Ballard where he says something like, ‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and then force it to look in the mirror’… that’s precisely what I wanted to do with this novel. I was thoroughly pissed off by the things I was seeing whenever I was out and about. I was disgusted by it, and I didn’t find it funny at all. I wanted to show Britain what Britain looked like, and I wanted Britain to be repulsed by what it saw.

As for whether the novel as a form is more adept than other forms – such as film or poetry – at portraying this type of thing… I really don’t know, but I’d assume it depends who’s writing it. For me, I’d always wanted to write a novel, so that’s what I ended up doing. I was making it up as I went along, really, and it was a very wasteful way of writing because I ended up cutting so much stuff out.

There’s another current that I feel runs under the surface of LAIRIES, that of philosophy. There are numerous explicit references to philosophers and their works and a more implicit philosophy of ethics that seems to drive the narrative. This current is so strong that I’m tempted to say LAIRIES works as a kind of philosophical hypothesis (or more accurately a hypothetical question), even if one made oblique by the 400 page-plus size of its analogy. What are your thoughts on that?

By the time I started writing it, I was really, really interested in philosophy. When I was about seventeen I met a PhD student who was writing his doctoral thesis on Kant, and we became friends. I was so intrigued that I ended up taking some philosophy modules at uni. I liked the idea of the ‘educated thug’ and at first I thought it would be mildly amusing if the ultra-violent Ade also drove a vintage camper van, listened to Fleetwood Mac and went on long, passionate diatribes about western philosophy. It just seemed to make him even odder, so I went with it. But I wanted there to be some ambiguity there too – he gets pissed off when he can’t get Duncan to understand the principles of some obscure philosophical enquiry, but does he even understand it himself? If the novel is asking a hypothetical question then I suppose it’s something like, ‘If masculinity is inherently toxic, then can there ever be such a thing as a good guy?’

I’ve asked a lot of writers during this series whether there is a question, or even a research question, at the centre of their work, so I’m keen to know: is that the question, the key question driving the novel? If LAIRIES is posing that question or any question at all, does it also provide an answer?

I think (and I’ve wracked by brains about this, believe me, with the help of my friends) that’s the key question the novel is asking. But the question remains unanswered. And the crucial thing is that it has to remain unanswered, I think, because there’s so much that’s pivoting on that tiny little word at the beginning: if. Duncan is basically a ‘good guy’ who’s a bit out of his depth, yet his actions have the most devastating consequences. Colbeck’s reluctance (or even inability) to confront his own emotions leads him to such a nadir that he basically feels he has to choose what type of misogynist he wants to be. Tag is perhaps the most typically ‘masculine’, yet he feels utterly emasculated by the fact he was unable to protect his girlfriend on the night she was assaulted. And Shaun has spent months or even years running from his problems, and, more importantly, running from himself, but now he’s stuck in hospital and he can’t run from anything anymore – he’s stuck where he is, both literally and metaphorically. The fact is, regardless of whether all masculinity is toxic, the part of it that is toxic can have devastating consequences for everyone – including men.

Steve Hollyman was born in Stoke-on-Trent and is the singer/guitarist in the three-piece alternative rock outfit CreepJoint. He wrote Lairies while studying at the Manchester Writing School — a pursuit he initially hoped would make him a better lyricist. Shortly afterwards, he was awarded a scholarship to complete a PhD, and he now works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.

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

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