Creatives in profile: interview with Will Eaves

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Will Eaves is a novelist, poet and teacher. He was Arts Editor of the Times Literary Supplement from 1995 to 2011 before moving to the University of Warwick, where he is an Associate Professor in the Writing Programme. His novel-in-voices The Absent Therapist was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2014. The Inevitable Gift Shop, a collection of poetry and prose, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry in 2016 and commended by the Poetry Book Society. The first chapter of his most recent novel, Murmur, was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2017.

In other words, Will Eaves is an okay dude. His writing has been described by critics as “scrupulous, humane, sad and strange”, carrying “an exciting sense of newness” that feels crucial at a time when mainstream publishing seems increasingly interested only in publishing copies of risk-free, commercially successful novels that are copies of other commercially successful novels.

In conversation, Eaves speaks the way he writes—with point, clarity and wit. Indeed, the reverse is also true: he writes in a way that feels like conversation.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

EAVES

I live in Brixton, at the top of Brixton Hill. I’ve been in the area now for nearly thirty years, though I come from the West Country (Bath) originally. I went to a comprehensive school: I think it’s the best kind of education there is. Far from perfect, but fair. It is absurd to talk about freedom of choice, in education or health, if choice is something only the rich can afford. Of course, environment has a lot to do with contentment at a young age, and the setting was beautiful. I liked Cross Country rather than contact sports – I was small and thin – and the weekly runs that the bigger kids hated (because of all the hills) took me through a kind of paradise of beech forest and meadows. While the PE teachers repaired to the staff room for a well-deserved fag break after all that fiddling about with whistles, we ran through Rainbow Wood at the top of Ralph Allen Drive and then down through the grounds of Prior Park towards Mike Casford’s house, where we’d stop for coffee and biscuits. I can’t run any more, which is a shame, but I can remember – well, I conjure up – the trees and thistles on those runs, and the view, and the freedom. The teachers smoked, we had coffee. Fair enough. There was some bullying at school, but nothing too bad. I was conscious of being small. I still think someone is going to push me into the road. On the other hand, I could be sharp, and I learnt to answer back. I don’t mind being taken to task, or disagreed with, or even disliked. I mind being exploited by the dull and fortunate.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

EAVES

It is a habit, more than anything else. I think of it as the sum of things that leads to a poem or a story or a book. I’ve always liked trees, and seeing seeds I’ve planted come up in the spring. Music, too: I played the piano and organ as a teenager; I liked the sociability and solitude of both those instruments; I can sing a bit. I enjoy acting. If I could afford it, I’d have a house with a music room. I was a latecomer to sex, and then had a great deal of it for twenty-five years! I’ve loved being gay. Even the bad experiences have been good, because you meet such different people. I’ve been properly in love twice. The last time was eight years ago and completely changed me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EAVES

My aunt. She is ninety. She left the UK in 1947, at the age of nineteen, and went to New York, where she taught at the Central School and met her husband, Bob Bollard, who was a Broadway composer and director. She got to know Sydney Pollack and Harry Belafonte and became involved in Democratic politics for a while. Bob died of cancer in his thirties and Scilla was completely stuck, no money, three kids. But she got a government grant to go to medical school and became a doctor. An ear specialist. I have never heard her complain about anything. I dread losing her. She is ten times the person I will ever be, but I try to follow her example. She liked Murmur, and if it passed muster with her, well, that’s good enough for me.

Writers – the Exeter Book, Shakespeare’s late plays and sonnets, Montaigne, Austen, Coleridge, George Eliot, Flaubert, Christina Rossetti, Auden, William Golding, Penelope Fitzgerald, whoever I happen to be reading (Patricia Beer), Elmore Leonard, Thom Gunn. Also, many comedians and comic writers – Victoria Wood, Lily Tomlin, Joe Keenan, Billy Wilder, Paul Rudnick. Musicians and composers – Bach, Poulenc, Chopin, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin.

And my Dad, John. He is a painter. He has felt it necessary to keep going. His approach is very much “do what you can” in life, which is sensible (and kinder than “do your best”).

I also admire my friends for a variety of reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Your books The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop have both been praised for their fragmentary form. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to structure your work in this way?

EAVES

I like the way speech patterns and conversations derail themselves. Good dialogue, like most things in life, is a combination of determined response and wild digression or misprision. I like the moments in arguments when people suddenly hear themselves yelling, or realise they’ve lost ground, and try to shut things down by changing the subject or feigning emotion. Or play dumb, or defend people who don’t need defending and infuriate everyone else. Anger is often dangerous in life, but it’s also the essence of comedy. I was so frustrated with my life, just before I started The Absent Therapist, and felt I’d run aground. Nothing more to say. Which was a kind of turning-point, because when you have nothing to say you start listening, and The Absent Therapist is really a short book about listening – to the people who interrupt each other, the people who sit quietly and take mental notes. The little monologues are both external and internal, and often seem to be about recreating a moment or justifying a position in retrospect.

Memory is dynamic. It isn’t the retrieval of discrete bits of information, but a sort of paradoxical jigsaw puzzle in which the remembered image changes with the piecing-together. I think that’s what I was trying to get at in The Inevitable Gift Shop, which was an attempt at an honest and therefore slightly discontinuous memoir. I was also in terrific pain at the time, and pain has a way of completely fracturing the mind. You don’t lose your mind. In some obvious ways, the qualia of mental experience are massively heightened. But the intensity of pain can be distracting.

INTERVIEWER

While the idea of collage as an artistic form is not new in the visual arts, do you think it is increasingly a form that is influencing writing – or the literary industry?

EAVES

There does seem to be a fashion for it, yes. But I wonder if the difference between collage and continuous narrative isn’t overstated. For example, a lot of ancient text is fragmentary – all that’s left after the ruin of the ages – and the suggestive reconstitution of those fragments (the psalms, the surviving tragic drama, the Exeter Book etc.) has helped build the Western canon in its long and short forms.

All writing is collage, or perhaps tapestry, in the sense that it is a composition of elements. The distinguishing property is the ordering of those elements – whether the collage serves one story, or image, or many; and often the “one story”, on closer inspection, is the many. Proust is long but kaleidoscopic, motes in one immense shaft of sunlight. I think that a lot of the fuss about experimentalism is slightly embarrassing. If you step back from the collage, you rediscover a sense of its cohesiveness; the edges become joined. A political metaphor.

INTERVIEWER

We know that life does not run in linear patterns – and rather comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennett notes in his work, ‘Consciousness explained’; “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, [yet] they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.” Do you think collage – or a fragmentary plot structure – is a more natural way of organising a piece of writing than traditional models, such as the plot-driven novel?

EAVES

There are lots of different questions, here. I think we need first to clear up something about linearity – to distinguish between the nature of time, as it affects the objective world (and the body), and the nature of mental reality. It’s an exaggeration to say that “life does not run in linear patterns”, because of course it does have a marked linearity for humans: we are born, we live, and then we die. That is the plot of life. But that is only time as we conceive of it historically; on closer inspection, time as we really apprehend it mentally is rather different: a thing that is experienced both as a linear process (we see its ageing, history-producing effect) and as something that can be reconfigured in (see above) the dynamic of memory. The odd thing is that this mental dynamism – a property of the consciousness that Dan Dennett and others consider to be an effect of ordinary material processes – turns out to be quite a good description of the way time operates at the level of the quantum equation, where physical law does not discriminate between the past and the future. (The direction of time’s arrow is given, it is thought, by the state of extreme orderliness at the beginning of the universe; but, statistically speaking, “chaos” is much more likely.)

What this combination of characteristics suggests to me is that consciousness, like time, is both highly personal and fundamental: the subjective component, the feeling that we are experiencing something unique to us, is not an illusion, or “just” an ideation, but an aspect of reality – of relativistic spacetime, in fact. Dennett is a brilliant man, but “we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent” seems to me to be wide of the mark. I have never met anyone who thinks of her mind in this way. The homunculus language of psychology – the “boss in the brain” – is a cartoon. Unless we are on powerful drugs, we normally conceive of minds as being complex and irreducible, as they may well be. My own feeling is that consciousness arises from material processes but cannot be reduced to them (the No Way Back Paradox). The fact that it cannot be reduced without losing its USP – the personal vantage-point – tells us something about our inadequate grasp of those ordinary material processes and their relationship to time.

I don’t see how a fragmentary narrative could be “more natural” than a unitary one because both are artistic constructions. But is fragmentation more realistic? Possibly.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, Murmur, puts us inside the mind – inside the dreams, even – of Alan Turing during his chemical castration. Simply, what processes do you go through to so vividly depict the most intimate moments of a genius’s mind at a time of extreme pain?

EAVES

I’m glad you feel that the experiment worked: thank you. It’s hard to say what one does. Writing a book – and perhaps especially a book about a dreadful transfiguration – is a little like having a protracted fit. Once it’s over, there’s no way to retrieve the feverish actuality of the creative moment. Thank God. I just remember not enjoying it very much, and feeling exiled from myself – a dissociative condition I couldn’t very well moan about because I’d chosen it. It’s a short book, but it took years to write, mostly because it coincided with a period of restricted movement, and of course I wonder about the relationship of that period to the anxieties inherent in the subject-matter. I also had to continue working as a teacher to pay the mortgage and the bills.

I was very nervous about tackling Turing. I’m not a mathematician so I had to work hard to understand the meta-mathematics of Godelian incompleteness, the Entscheidungsproblem, etc, and I hope I haven’t made too many errors. For fictional purposes, he had to be his own avatar: I couldn’t allow myself to put words into the mouth of a genius. That would have been wrong. But I think my overall wager is sound. Murmur tries to find a dramatic paraphrase for Turing’s physical, mental and political predicament. It asks: how does one fit the personal experience of trauma into a material conception of the world? The story’s scientist, Alec Pyror, discovers that the outward responses one gives to the world are not necessarily related to the inner life, which may be crying out, in great distress. At the same time, the novel resists that pain. It’s the story of a man trying to overcome desolation and self-pity by objectifying the trauma.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

EAVES

Yes. Ethics is the social dimension of morality. Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are so many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform. Writing springs from a strange combination of personal aesthetic ambition, vanity, and guarded conviction. It is much more provisional than the artefactual solidity of a book might suggest: this book is what I have to say this time, and it will be a different performance next time. Ethics, for a writer, are unavoidable because publication is the social dimension of private inquiry. The process is, and should be, discomfiting. One way of producing bad writing, bad philosophy and sclerotic politics is to attempt to get art, argument and policy to represent a standard of conduct that already exists – an ideology, I guess. Writers should be wary of all that. If you find yourself expressly on the side of a political party, or a movement, fine, but be prepared to find yourself in disagreement with it. Soon. The most important thing about a conviction is the moment when circumstances threaten its validity.

INTERVIEWER

What role do writers and artists have in shaping culture – or influencing social conversations?

EAVES

This is an enormous question. There is one’s ambition to do something, and there is the true state of play. There is the role one’s ego perceives a writer to have – the role one desires, or fears, perhaps – and there is one’s actual insignificance. How you think you come over, how you are. What you think you can do, what gets done. If one thinks of art and writing as one might think of anything else in life, then the answer must be that one shapes and influences one’s surroundings in a piecemeal fashion, sometimes by design but mostly by accident, and of course the shaping and influencing are reciprocal. Often, it’s the work and the actions that take place on one’s blind side that count for most: the contributions to a local paper, the email sent at just the right time, the note to a councillor. Nothing lasts, and that’s fine. We rediscover art and culture and form and justice. Also, it’s a mistake to confuse the public voice with the social voice. Private correspondence is social, too. The most important things I have written have been letters to people who, for one reason or another, needed some acknowledgment.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you feel, is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction; prose and poetry?

EAVES

A fruitful misalliance. W. Somerset Maugham (in his postscript to The Casuarina Tree): “A work of fiction, and perhaps I should not go too far if I spoke more generally and said, a work of art, is an arrangement which the author makes of the facts of his experience with the idiosyncracies of his own personality.”

INTERVIEWER

A running theme in some of your books is the subject of Artificial Intelligence. In a world increasingly full of modern technology, and in which we now have computer programmes writing prose and poetry (including re-writing Harry Potter), what role do human beings have to play when surrounding by all this early-form AI? Are you as sceptical about AI as, say, the late Stephen Hawking?

EAVES

I’m not sure Hawking was sceptical about it. He was alarmed.

There are two issues. One is the sci-fi existential anxiety about conscious machines, which is obviously predicated on an understanding of what sort of thing consciousness itself might turn out to be. We don’t know. We’re not there, yet, and conscious robotics are a way off, because what we have so far is responsive machinery behaving in ways to which we may, if we choose, assign the properties of intelligence. But assigning such properties to a piece of technology is not the same thing as claiming intentionality for the machine itself – that is, the capacity to refer to things outside itself, to understand the meaning of the rules it follows, etc. Metaphorical language isn’t helping us much, because we tend to forget that “messages”, for example, are conscious-user-dependent concepts. A computer doesn’t send messages; you read them.

Conscious machinery will happen. But machinery doesn’t need to be conscious for it to play a significant, symbiotic and potentially destructive role in social and economic development. Non-conscious tech – automation – has been around a long time and is becoming more sophisticated; the efficiencies/growth model of capitalism means that it will absorb most remaining manufacturing labour in the coming decades. What then?

The vulnerability of labour in a national context is the second problem. Our anxieties about borders and migration are displaced anxieties about borderless technology and the silent transfer of executive power from the defined state (a country with a border and jurisdictional limits) to the transnational corporation. Cyber warfare is a demonstration of the fact that states are losing their integrity: the more powerful countries use the “freeflow” of cyberspace to advance their political agenda (as Emily Taylor has argued in Cyber Policy Journal); but this goes hand-in-hand with corporatism, it turns out, because the media platforms manipulated by these countries, and flooded with bots and micro-targeting, are mega-companies with enormous worker populations across the globe and the ability to pick and choose their tax liabilities.

I’m not sure how we wrest back control. Corporates create the tech, the tech crosses or cancels the border, the states survive in name only, the corporates stay in charge.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EAVES

Consequential wonder.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a typical ‘writing process’?

EAVES

No. I used to say “start, then keep going”, but I don’t know what “start” means any more. I try to nurture a habit of reading and annotation, hoping that the trail of scrawl will lead to an interesting, half-original thought, and so to a premise, and then some figures in a doorway . . .

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

EAVES

Not much. Journalism is a profession – and an important one. Writing is one of its tools. Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague as a term to be of much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, don’t they? It’s a conversation stopper, that’s for sure.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

EAVES

I’m sorry to say that I can’t, because there aren’t any.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

EAVES

Read slowly and carefully. Write letters. Eat properly. Walk. Don’t be afraid to stop: other people matter more in the end, and it’s not a race. Learn to spell and punctuate. Look up.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Creatives in profile: interview with Will Eaves

  1. Pingback: Creatives in profile | nothingintherulebook

  2. Pingback: Will Eaves makes Goldsmith Prize shortlist for second time | nothingintherulebook

  3. Pingback: Read an interview with Will Eaves about Murmur. | Bellevue Literary Press

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