Last week, I said that I had a book coming out, and it’s out now! You can buy After the Fall, an anthology of stories featuring myself, Emma Lannie, Simon Sylvester, Dave Hartley and more from the Boo Books website.
Dave Hartley and myself have been interviewing each other about our stories and writing, and part one appeared on his blog last weekend. You can read it here, and I urge you to check it out before coming back to this post.
We left the conversation with the following question from myself to Dave: Do you remember which book was your formative book, and how do you feel it has perhaps shaped your writing to this day?
Dave: Ooh it was Banks as well. My mum (ever the one to put books in my hands) gave me Dead Air by Banks when I was about 15 or 16 and it was the first proper ‘adult’ ‘literary’ (note the careful use of ” there) I’d read. It felt like I’d graduated somehow, but it just so happened that Banks was a perfect transition for that. I was hooked and devoured loads more of his non-SF stuff then sidestepped into the Culture by way of Excession. That was a very important moment. My reading trajectory growing up had been something like: Beano —> Roald Dahl –> The Hobbit/LOTR –> Redwall —> Goosebumps/Horrible Histories –> a smatter of Pratchett —> Pullman’s His Dark Materials —> Banks’ Dear Air —> Banks’ Culture —> Everything else. So that step from mostly popular fantasy/SF to straight-down-the-line grown up stuff and then back again to spaceships and robots, but with a more contemporary feel and plenty of sex and violence, demonstrated how well all those elements can sit alongside each other, and how they can intermingle, and communicate to create wonderful, progressive, things. That’s why Banks was such a master: he had 0 patience with genre boundaries and just wrote whatever the hell he wanted to write and it was (usually) top notch.
I’ve taken a lot from that and never worried since about the sort of stories I feel compelled to write, nor the sort of books I feel compelled to read. I have preferences, certainly, but I let whatever feels right to me take shape, rather than getting hemmed in by any perceived notion of what should be where. There’s an essential impulse buried in it all. While at Uni I studied a fair bit of academic writing on Myth, including a lot of Carl Jung, and came to realise that storytelling is something akin to a human sense, rather than a skill. The skill element comes from practice and craft, the actual impulse of telling stories is as necessary to humans as drinking water. We have to do it to stay sane. So, in a way, I let the stories well up inside me and I trust my inner mythmaker to sculpt them into something palatable. It doesn’t always work, but its magical when it does.
The idea of myths and storytelling probably contributes to the popularly received notion that everyone has a novel inside them – but I’m not entirely sure if I actually go along with that. I’m writing a novel, I know you are writing – two is it now? So let’s talk about that: how are you finding the process of writing a novel compared to short stories? I’m starting to find that its one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. And: does everyone have a novel in them? Should we believe Will Self when he says the novel is just about to die? Too many questions.
Dan: I completely agree with your take on Banks, and I think that a hell of a lot of my opinions on great literature stem from reading his books. Books can be whatever they want and damn the consequences/genre they get labelled as. I think it’s very telling that Transition is released as an Iain Banks book in the UK, but as Iain M Banks in the US. Even early works like The Bridge are part psychological breakdown, part full blown Gilliam-fantasy.
I think that’s also the healthiest way for people to approach their own writing: do what you feel comfortable doing. Do what you want to do. The minute you sit down and say to yourself ‘I’m going to write a crime novel’ is the minute you start being constrained by cliche and genre tropes.
I feel that, with some of the questions you posed me, you really want an answer to the question: can everyone write? I’m sure there is an idea for a novel inside everyone. There is certainly a story in everyone; just take a look at storytelling nights like Tales of Whatever. Whether those stories will ever see the light of day in prose is another question. The novel, as I have been discovering over the past year and a bit, is a beast of a thing to get through. It is work. It is a genuine slog.
You’re right that I’m working on two, although I have left the second one for the time being as I’ve started work on draft two of the first novel. I’ve gone at it the way that Jonathan Lethem writes his books, by more or less rewriting the entire novel start to finish as a second draft. It’s proving to be really difficult, but much more rewarding at the same time. I’m nearing the end of the opening chapter, so it’s very much early days, but already so much has changed in terms of plot and story, and even character. I feel like the tale can breathe a bit more now that I’m freeing it from all the mistakes I made in draft one. I find both short fiction and novels fairly tough to write, but they do differ for me in that with my short fiction so much of the hard work goes into the first draft and I often struggle with the final third. I have a great many unfinished short stories which I just couldn’t end, but only a handful of novels that have gone uncompleted.
As for Will Self, every few years someone always says that the novel is dead. I never agree. The novel evolves. It is not a crocodile, or a coelacanth. Maybe it isn’t dying, but merely shedding its skin and becoming something else. In any case, his words:
“The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes.”
Are more or less, in my opinion, just trolling for an argument. Yes libraries and bookstores close, but more people read. Whether that’s on e-readers or tablets or however they choose to do it, more and more people read. Books are not an elitist form, they are accessible and they are for everyone. They don’t have to be these enormously important narrative works that bend language and structure and challenge our views on society and our very existence, sometimes we just want a story about a teenage wizard.
But let’s backtrack a little to your last answer. You talked in there about Jung and myth. You studied a great deal of film theory, and I remember a wonderful post you wrote about the Moffat Sherlock and applying theories of rebirth and death to it. Despite how wrong you are about that show, I’d be interested to know where those theories lie in your mind when you write a story. Are they at the forefront, a structure on a page waiting for a story to fit, or do they linger in the back of your head?
I think they linger there, but I recognise and – crucially – trust them when they erupt. Jung’s theories were in many ways a bit madcap, a bit irrational, and a bit too reliant on dream interpretations, but he wasn’t as sex-obsessed as Freud, which is always a bonus. In his Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious he studies the myths and stories of a variety of cultures and tries to ‘map’ them onto his (often quite startling) ideas on the structure and impulses of the subconscious. A lot of it rings true: he identifies a set of character types which seem to be embedded into the human mind and closely correlate with the way in which we narrativise our existence. So you have the Hero (ie: Bond), the Shadow (ie Blofeld), the Anima/Animus (ie; Pussy Galore), the Wise Old Man (ie; M), the Trickster (Q, perhaps, or Bond again, or Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die) – but it gets interesting when all these types get mixed up or changed or challenged, as in Film Noir or in twisted fairytales or in surrealism. In his later years, Jung wrote a fascinating book called Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky in which he attempts to update his theories to a modern phenomena while at the same time hinting that he’d love to believe in aliens. An interesting read.
What studying myth and Jung and film narratives taught me as a writer is to, effectively, trust my ‘collective unconscious’ or, as later Jungians have termed it, the ‘cultural unconscious.’ This, as I understand it, is a kind of repository of mythic impulses stored up subconsciously from the moment your mind starts to form and on and on through life, building up and up. So I sit down to write an idea into a story and trust the little worker bees in my head to pitch off to that repository and bring me back structure, character, imagery and so on. It usually works – and I find I’m more successful doing this than, say, sitting down and thinking: I’m going to write a story about a Trickster now.
The death/rebirth thing is one of the most compelling theories I read about and seems to be right at the heart of a lot of myth. The obvious death/rebirth icon is Jesus, but it has existed as the key moment of storytelling since way before that little god-botherer. And the more you know about it, the more you see it everywhere, which is why I was compelled to write that Sherlock blogpost. My novel is full of death/rebirths so I’m definitely aware of it there and I’m playing on it as much as possible – but since the novel is about angels and creation myths it fits quite nicely.
Does that ring true with your experiences? You are one of the most widely-read people I know, particularly when it comes to the heady world of comics – which is chock full of mythologies and psychologies. Do you find yourself drawing specifically from this particular strand of narrative construction, or do you feel more separate from it as you write?
I don’t know whether I dwell on it all that much when I write, like you I think that a great many tropes and structures linger in the back of my mind, but I don’t think about things too hard when I write. Certainly not first drafts. I think it’s important to let a story breathe, and let the characters take a lead, when you try and place a structure on something without having thought about the characters, you’ll constrain them and the story will suffer.
Being aware of structure can also take a lot of the fun out of a story too, and I think that’s sometimes a problem for me. You can only get so far into reading superhero comics before you realise that death in that world is meaningless, characters die and come back all the time, and I find myself groaning when a character bites it. You see it more and more in films now, and TV. Shows like Doctor Who, and Buffy are so indebted to comic book tropes, and their uses can often frustrate me.
I suppose then, in that respect, I’m trying to avoid those kinds of things. I’ve certainly taken turns in stories, stopped and deleted the last few paragraphs because I’ve seen myself falling into a trap. I want to try and do something different with my writing although that isn’t always successful. I think a part of it is that whilst I read a lot, I never studied literature and so the theory isn’t always there for me, I know of Jung, but I’ve never read him. In that sense, I consider very little in terms of mythologies and psychologies when I write.
One of my favourite writers is Grant Morrison, a Scottish comic book writer who delivers absolutely mind-bending comics. His drug-fuelled espionage comic The Invisibles is still one of my favourites, and his seven-year Batman run was one chock full of symbolism, metaphor and big ideas. That’s one thing I adore about comics. They can be heady and smart and big, but they can do it in a comic starring Batman. They can have him shoot a god with a bullet made of evil (that happened) and then get shot back to the dawn of time (happened) and fight the devil disguised as his father (happened) and even in just that sentence there is so much subtext its ridiculous. I love that comics can do that sort of thing often without seeming pretentious or overblown.
I want to ask you about your novel, which deals in creation myths in a very strange industrial landscape. How did you come to start writing it, and was it a conscious choice to make it a novel, or was that something that happened in the writing of it?
The novel started life years and years ago when I first started properly writing. Back then I was doing a Creative Writing unit as part of my undergraduate course and I got this idea about angels and factories. I knew back then that it was the best idea I’d ever had and turned it into a 2000 word short story. After uni, I sat on the idea for ages, determined to go back and make something of it. As the years peeled by, it grew and grew in my head: the world got bigger and more complex, the story expanded out and out and when I returned to it I knew it had become much bigger than 2000 words, and not long after I decided it was a novel.
I had a little go at writing it out, but quickly stopped. I’ve always been quite cautious of novel writing: I didn’t feel truly ready to start writing a novel until about 12-18 months ago because I didn’t feel as if I’d quite found my ‘voice’, as it were. In the last 12 months though I’ve been having a proper go at it and I now feel like I’m very nearly there. Draft 2 is almost ready.
I can’t for the life of me remember where the idea came from, although it will have had something to do with an incident in my youth when my Dad had something of a crisis of faith. Its too complicated a story to go into now, but it involved Dad having a creative conflict with some of the more small-minded elements of the Catholic Church. It set both him and me on the path to atheism, but also on the path to thinking and interrogating religious themes in our creative outputs. As such, the novel at the moment is not a tirade against the Church at all – and I don’t want it to be that – but the imagery and mythology of the Christian faith has proven to be very fertile ground so far. And I certainly think my reading into Myth theory at university has helped me hone the novel ideas into concepts of creation myths, divinity myths – and more abstract things like the myths of celebrity, the myths of the workplace, the myths of environment even.
I’ve read a little of your novel-in-progress (which I realise may have changed substantially now) which is predominantly set from a child’s perspective. As I recall, quite a few of your short stories are from a child’s perspective too – I’m thinking in particular of Relict. Is this a conscious choice on your part or do you feel particularly at home writing from a younger POV?
You are right in a way, I suppose. The novel is entirely from a child’s perspective and a few of my short stories are too. I don’t know if this is a conscious choice, and I certainly don’t sit down and think about whose story it is that I’m telling. When I start writing I spend the first few paragraphs working out who the narrator is, their tone of voice and the ways they’ll tell their story, but I don’t often look at a cast of characters, find the child and determine that I’ll tell the story from their point of view.
With Cowards it makes sense because the novel is a horrible, violent, baptism of fire-esque, coming of age novel. It needs to have an innocent boy at the centre of it otherwise it just wouldn’t work. The boy needs to be telling the story too, otherwise we’d know far too much up front.
Other stories of mine, whilst not all of them have child narrators per se, do share similar main characters. I like people who are absolute in their beliefs, and to take people like that and put them through the wringer in a short story is always fun. To bring it back to the anthology story, Old Sheets is very much about that, it’s still about a child in many ways, from the way that our main character is concerned about his daughter’s safety, as well as his own relationship to his mother.
I think that maybe I tell stories from the most innocent perspective I can find. I don’t think I could ever write about a Don in the Mafia, but I could put together a story about the kid bringing him his wine, who thinks he just works in a bar. A great many of my favourite books have characters like that, The Wasp Factory being a prime example, and it’s possibly something I’ve always held onto.
Let’s wind this up now with a final question for you Dave, you’ve had a collection of flash fiction published through Gumbo Press, and you’ve self-published several collections of your own work. Could you talk about the decision making process behind self-publishing versus real publishing, and perhaps also what your hopes for the novel are?
I really like that: telling the story from the innocent point of view.
In terms of publishing I’ve found positives and negatives from both self and regular publishing, but both were and continue to be very exciting. I’m very proud of Threshold and happy with the finished product, but it still have a lot of copies left in a box in my cupboard. But the same applies to my self-published output. I like having fingers in both pies: self-publishing gives me more creative freedom, regular publishing still has the kudos and sway that comes along with a brand name and ISBN. I will continue to pursue both areas because if nothing else it demonstrates to publishers/agents etc that I am utterly serious about being a published writer prepared to work hard in that industry, but also that I’ve had experience in conceiving, creating, designing, promoting a whole and complete piece of my own work. It clearly demonstrates that I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs.
For the novel, I’m looking to get it proper published and I won’t relent on that yet. Self-publishing the novel is tempting, particularly if it gets constant rejections, and as you know my Dad has self-published a novel with a moderate level of success, but I still feel like if I want to make a serious and significant leap forward into a writing career, I need to be traditionally published. I believe that and will continue to chase it. I think the concept of the novel is reasonably unique and certainly catches people’s attention (to the extent that I’m terrified someone will jump in there and do it first…!) so I can see the market potential.
The common ground of self and regular publishing, is that they can both be disheartening. Literature is a hard-sell – it always has been – but the market these days is maddening, bewildering, confusing. But, with ebooks and so on, it is also thrilling, surprising and wide, wide open. Whether that makes things better or worse for writers and writing is very difficult to say, and I usually tend to err on the side of positivity. But when you’ve put your heart and soul into something and it doesn’t sell as well as you might have hoped, it can be a downer. But that is the nature of the world of the arts. My ethos is: keep creating, keep going, never dawdle, turn writing into an obsession, a necessity, and the rest will fall into place.
For more information on the After the Fall anthology, you can find all of the contributors on the Boo Books website. On there you can order a copy of the book, and find out more information on the launch events. Myself and Dave will both be reading and talking about our stories at the Derby Film Festival on 15th May..