Creatives in profile: interview with Ian Sansom

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Ian Sansom is the author of the popular Mobile Library Mystery Series. He is also a frequent contributor and critic for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The London Review of Books, and The Spectator. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Previously described by Alex Pryce as an author happy to make “mischief”, his latest book, December Stories I, is full of Sansom’s trademark humour – pulling together a rich collage of different lives lived over the month of December into something funny and sad, lovely and above all else utterly empathetic.

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with Sansom to speak about his new book, his collaboration with the fantastic folk at No Alibis Press, and everything else in between.

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

I am a small, round, bearded, middle-aged man. I live – as I have done for most of my adult life – in a remote corner of the UK which currently has no functioning government.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

SANSOM

I don’t think ‘love’ or ‘passion’ are quite the words I would use. Flann O’Brien described writing as a form of vocational malfunction. For me that’s probably closer to the truth.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SANSOM

In literary terms, I tend to admire writers who manage simply to keep going, despite all the odds. In personal terms, I have been blessed with many friends and colleagues who have been a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

SANSOM

Alas, no pipe-lighting dominee lit my way.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

SANSOM

A writer is someone who writes.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, December Stories I, exposes the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of human nature and relationships that the festive period brings to light. Of course, these contradictions are not unique to our species during only the month of December; but they do appear to be heightened. Why do you think that is?

SANSOM

In a word: proximity. The coming together of people – or the lack of coming together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you personally identify with any of the characters in the short pieces contained within December Stories I?

SANSOM

Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I’m everyone and no one.

INTERVIEWER

On a scale of Tiny Tim to Ebenezer Scrooge, where would you place yourself during the run up to Christmas and New Year?

SANSOM

Tiny Tim, if only for his plaintive cry, ‘God bless us, every one!’

INTERVIEWER

What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?

SANSOM

Like most writers, I am incredibly lazy and try to avoid all research if at all possible. If it’s necessary, I will do what’s necessary.

INTERVIEWER

You collaborated with No Alibis Press to bring December Stories I to life. How important, for you, is the relationship between a writer and their publisher?

SANSOM

We depend on each other entirely. In another life, I’d maybe come back as a publisher, to see what the relationship is like from the other perspective.

INTERVIEWER

During a period of the year in which everyone is bombarded with messages urging them to consume more and more goods, food and services, it can feel harder and harder to take time out to read something that doesn’t make December out to be one long glorious month of consumerism. How important is it, do you think, for writers and creatives to try and step away from the background noise of advertising and product placement? And what would be on your Christmas reading list?

SANSOM

What is it that Walter Benjamin writes in ‘One-Way Street’: ‘What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving neon sign says – but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.

The only book I read every year at Christmas is Delia Smith’s Christmas – it’s excellent.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

SANSOM

It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.

Ethics is transcendental.

(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)

Lugwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (1961)

INTERVIEWER

You’ve previously asked whether paper can survive in the digital age. But in an age of e-readers and e-zines; do you ever feel that the traditional printed book may be at risk of disappearing? Or will they simply evolve?

SANSOM

Everything changes. Everything evolves.

INTERVIEWER

Seneca once wrote that the “reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady.” And advised that “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” When you read, do you find it helpful to linger only among a select few authors – or do you think it better to read as widely and voraciously as possible?

SANSOM

Personally, I am omnivorous.

INTERVIEWER

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

SANSOM

This year I am publishing 3 books: a novel, a work of non-fiction, and a collection of short stories. Plus all of the usual para-literary activities.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SANSOM

Six words was not nearly enough.

Get more Samson here: watch the video of the author reading an excerpt from his latest book, December Stories I.

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Let’s keep our windows on the world

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It is 2006 when I enter a small branch library on Victoria Road, Swindon. On first sight it is stuffed with books and there’s a public computer – hooray! One of the two library assistants notices me and we get chatting. Thus begins my integration into the Old Town – people to meet, books to choose and discuss, reliable information readily to hand and all the advice I need from our librarians. Within days I am greeted by name. And so the uneasiness of settling into a new location is dispelled.

In those halcyon days small branch libraries up and down the country served millions of people, answering millions of queries and providing a focal point for each community.  Free of charge, it has been a special, accessible and safe space to be enjoyed not only by newcomers, but everyone else. What’s not to like?

Swindon opened its first public library in August 1943, in the middle of World War II.  The public library was at that time and until recently recognised by politicians and public servants as an institution essential to the public good. Townsfolk enjoyed a central library and 14 further public libraries, plus a mobile service. It is, however, the sad reality today that, in spite of the town’s expansion and so many new people moving in, the mobile service is defunct and all but four of its public libraries have been divested out of the statutory service, their future sustainability uncertain.

As long ago as 2007 we learned that our own much-appreciated facility was threatened with closure. Margaret, over eighty years of age, said she’d chain herself to the railings in that event, while other users of all ages and backgrounds were similarly distraught.  Roisin had brought her children, then her grandchildren to this little library. Peter had made friends, he says, and it gives him something to look forward to, keeping his brain active. The friendliness and buzz of our branch library, so professionally run had invigorated young and old alike, linking us to the community around us.

Such a threat to it, then, must surely be challenged. Who would petition the council?  How could the library’s closure or the loss of its staff be tolerated?

To gather signatures on any physical petition is a salutary experience, uniting disparate people around a local issue perhaps more than any e-petition can. As we cheerfully roamed the local streets, we became aware that few people knew the library was threatened. It had had such a low profile that a few did not even know it existed. Our presence on street corners in the bitter cold, we hoped, would put an end to that. Note the young mother who signed with alacrity. I recall her particularly because she needed to take her autistic son to a smaller space than the central library. He’d not be able to cope with that, she said. The elderly were worried, too, being less mobile. They were accustomed to visiting the library often (on foot) to load themselves up with enough books or audio-books to read at home.

Appeals to Culture ministers and Secretaries of State, most recently in 2015, met with assurances that our concerns were legitimate and would be investigated. They have actually done absolutely nothing!

On the upside, the support of The Library Campaign, a national charity, has been crucial to our morale and small successes, as we fought long and hard to retain what we felt was ours by right. As a result our branch library and its paid staff were saved for ten years or so. Result!

The threat, however, expanded in 2016 to become borough wide, so there was a massive reorganisation of folk across the Town. Users and campaigners united as Save Swindon’s Libraries. As a result, four excellent libraries continue to serve the town within the statutory service, but the remainder, though open, do not enjoy their former status.  Although it could have been far worse, the loss of staff expertise and the general hollowing out of what is left leaves a woeful legacy for future generations.

Consider, where does the Universal Credit claimant who can’t afford a computer go when he’s told to claim online? What about the teenager who needs somewhere safe to go after school to read or study, when the gates to the library are closed to him? What of the gentleman who has had two strokes; his isolation only eased by trips to the library.  Councils like ours need to think how much they will have to spend picking up the pieces when all these people lose all these lifelines. Health, literacy, education, social services, even crime prevention are underpinned by the public library. Yet at least seven hundred have closed since 2010 and many others have been robbed of staff and have an increasingly precarious existence.

A public library is the local authority’s window on the world. Must it be curtains for them, due to the decisions of philistines and the withholding of investment, or can the public unite again to demand a comprehensive service? I’ll carry on asking for this and I hope you will, too.

About the author of this article

ombudsman3Shirley Burnham is a library campaigner who established the Friends of Old Town Library group in 2008 that became the Save Old Town Library Campaign in 2009. Latterly she has supported Save Swindon’s Libraries which was organised by Sarah Church to protect threatened libraries across the borough of Swindon.  Shirley also campaigns for accessible, professionally-run public libraries in other parts of the country.  You can follow her on Twitter @ShirleyBurnham

 

Creatives in profile: interview with No Alibis Press

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Emma Warnock and David Torrans, of No Alibis Press and bookstore

It is an increasingly rare sight to find newly published books that break with tradition in uncompromising, unique, surprising and challenging ways. This is, in part, a reflection upon our current times. We live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas. This is strangling our modern culture – limiting us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels that are published so often seem to be ones we’ve already read; or else another celebrity biography. This risk-averse and profit-focused approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

At a time when we need new ideas and voices to counter the prevailing cultural winds, which tell us creativity is only of value if it sells, the role of independent publishers becomes more apparent. We need diversity and originality in our publishing; not ceaseless imitation and repetition in pursuit of a fast buck. We need books that experiment and take risks; not those that seem afraid to be different.

Yet of course, setting up and running an independent publisher is no easy feat – not least because anyone who does so must continually battle with the financial weight of the corporate monopolies that dominate the publishing sector.

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Based in a small corner of Belfast, No Alibis Press is a small publishing company with a big shouty attitude. As an independent press they’re relatively new on the scene, but for some time now they’ve been quietly incubating among the shelves of No Alibis bookstore where David Torrans and his team have been selling books for more than twenty years. One of their first books – December Stories I by Ian Samson – has already received praise from critics (including ourselves). So just how does a brand new publishing house shout loud enough to be heard over the noise emitted by the corporate behemoths?

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with the team behind No Alibis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves and your background

NO ALIBIS PRESS

David Torrans, owner of No Alibis Bookstore (opened 1997) and No Alibis Press (founded 2018), both based in Belfast.

Emma Warnock, commissioning editor at No Alibis Press, joined in 2018 after 10 years of working in the industry for various publications and presses as a freelance editor.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The people who take a leap of faith – whatever their discipline/job/motivation – and try to change the way things are done. In terms of writing that has been published recently, June Caldwell jumps to mind. Her collection of stories Room Little Darker (New Island, 2017) is a dramatic departure from the norm – both in terms of the writing itself and the subjects she is exploring. It is dark, uncompromising and incredibly inspiring.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about No Alibis Press – how was it borne into existence?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Independent bookselling over the past 20 years has taught us the importance of independent presses in the larger publishing world. Independent presses to a great degree have helped us to survive by bringing in material that is exciting and adventurous, and that’s why it came to mind when we were thinking of ways to celebrate the 20th anniversary of No Alibis bookshop. Happily, this coincided with us coming across Gerard Brennan’s Disorder, which he handed in to the shop to be bound as part of his PhD in creative writing. Having asked if it would be all right to read it, we immediately knew we had our first publication, and this launched No Alibis Press in 2018.

INTERVIEWER

Has the press evolved as you expected since you first set it up?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

It feels too early to say how it has evolved, as we are only coming to the end of our first (incredibly busy and exciting) year. However, we have had really positive responses to our first two publications (Gerard Brennan’s Disorder and Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1), which has certainly given us the energy and inspiration needed to continue.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a work “uncompromising”, in your opinion?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Writing that subverts conventional practices in some way – maybe through form or narrative voice – in order to tap into something new but recognisable. Very often it will defy easy categorisation. For example, Gerard Brennan’s novel Disorder explores the conflicting agendas of a number of characters on the fringes of recreational rioting without entering directly into characters’ minds. It is gritty, darkly funny crime fiction that is experimenting with the conventions of the genre, and it is very effective in creating an appropriately energetic pace. Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1 (a very different work) is also very difficult to categorise. It is a collection of varying forms that work as standalone pieces, but function at a more profound level as a whole. It is a very playful use of form that absolutely suits the insightful portrayals of the characters and their very different experiences of December. In addition to being examples of excellent writing, arguably both of these books are subverting common practice in some way and that makes them very exciting.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published December Stories I by Ian Samson. What drew you to this work, and what’s it been like to bring it into literary existence?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

As soon as we read the manuscript we knew that we had something very special. The stories are characteristic of Sansom’s playful humour, while also exposing the idiosyncrasies of human nature and relationships that December brings to light. We felt very fortunate to be given the opportunity to publish such an extraordinary collection. Watching it come together with beautiful illustrations by the very talented Rory Jeffers was also very satisfying. Working with Ian has been fantastic. He filmed all 31 of the stories with his son Joseph Sansom (who fortunately for us is a filmmaker) which are available on our website.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a little about the relationship between No Alibis Press and No Alibis Bookstore? How important is it to ensure there is a physical space to provide a platform for both the books you publish, but also for events and readings?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Quite simply, No Alibis Press wouldn’t exist without the bookshop, without twenty years of selling books and getting to know how the industry works. As well as selling books, we have always held gigs and readings in the shop and at other venues, and we regularly participate in festivals across Ireland and the UK. It all comes down to getting writers in front of an audience, getting their work into the hands of interested readers. Publishing feels like a natural progression from that.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

As a small press, we all end up doing a little bit of everything, so the day can involve processing orders, updating the website or promoting our publications, which may mean tweeting reviews or corresponding with event organisers. As we only publish a couple of titles a year, we can devote a huge amount of energy to the production and promotion of the next book. This means we have been obsessed with December (Ian Sansom’s December Stories 1) since about March. We have submissions coming in all the time, and reading new work is a time-consuming and highly enjoyable part of daily life.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

For No Alibis Press, publishing is about getting books or stories that may not appeal to more commercial companies out into the public arena. This might be because they are experimental or slightly subversive, or simply exceptional writing that larger companies aren’t willing to take a risk on for various reasons.

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has suggested that mainstream publishing companies are only interested in “publishing copies of novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think this is a fair assessment? And how can independent publishing houses help address the balance – championing new voices and new ideas?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

One of the pleasant surprises for me over the past year is to see how supportive publishers and editors are of one another (both small and large). I think that’s because there’s a sense we’re all aiming for the same goal – to support writers in a difficult industry at a time when outside players (whether online giants or supermarkets etc) are creating unsustainable conditions. There are lots of very talented hardworking people in mainstream publishing companies and many of them are producing original books while still responding to the demands of readers. Sometimes they might be more restricted in certain areas than smaller publishers, or have slightly different motivations, but I think there is a recognition that both small and larger companies are playing different but equally vital roles in producing a range of material.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see your own work as having a political element to it at all?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

I suppose publishing fiction – particularly when you are looking for experimental, new or subversive work – is always political because the writing tends to defamiliarise the everyday and challenge norms. We want to publish unheard voices and stories, which is one of the reasons why we decided to publish an anthology of short stories and have opened this up to submissions (until 31 Jan 2019). But besides wanting to promote equality and traditionally under-represented voices, we don’t take a particular political stance. Having said that, personal politics determine many of our choices – we’re never going to publish fiction that champions far-right perspectives, for example. We’ve also rejected manuscripts that carry misogynistic undertones.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The digital era prioritises convenience, but arguably something is lost along the way. There is still a strong desire among readers to hold the printed object in their hand. That’s why when it comes to design and formatting we put extra effort into making sure the books we publish are the right quality of paper, the right size, and that the text is beautifully arranged. We don’t see it as a competition with digital, however. Plenty of people want to read some books in a digital format and keep others on their shelf.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

It’s true, we’ve been hearing about the imminent demise of the novel, of traditional publishing, the local bookshop for some time now. Yet, novels are still selling in huge numbers – Milkman by Anna Burns is a good example of that, reprints having exceeded expectations. Of course, not every novel attains the readership of a Man Booker prize-winner, but it does demonstrate that there is an appetite for reading, there is a potential audience. For independent presses, this is a very exciting time. Recent successes of Tramp Press or Galley Beggar Press, for example, remind writers looking for representation that smaller publishers can be an attractive option. At No Alibis Press, we’re really not trying to predict what the future holds, we simply continue to look for the best writing we can find and get it out there on the bookshelves.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

I’d say the main challenge we face, which is the same for all publishers big or small, is the financial aspect. As we do not receive external funding, we need money to be coming into the shop and through book sales in order to continue doing what we love. We have to ensure our authors and readers are happy with the price and available buying options, and that we are not compromising on quality or content. We have to find ways to promote the books that don’t cost a lot of money, for example releasing videos of Ian Sansom reading on Twitter and Facebook, and we rely on our authors being prepared to get out there and talk about their work. Financial restraints can bring about more interesting ways to promote books, however, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

The process of dissecting what you witness or experience, and representing it in a new, original form.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for No Alibis Press? What should we look out for?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

We are currently reading submissions for an anthology of short stories, to be published summer 2019. The purpose of the collection is to celebrate writing that is both exceptionally good and challenging conventions in some way, doing something very new with voice or form. We have been very impressed by the quality of submissions already received (submissions are open until 31 Jan 2019), so we anticipate an exciting volume.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

Sure. Here’s some historical fiction with a strong female lead:

Once upon a time, she was.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

  1. Don’t be swayed too much by what other people are doing, or by the market.
  2. Don’t rush to submit work without rewriting (many times).
  3. Find a way to make your work unfamiliar as you redraft – writers’ techniques include printing out work, changing the font, reading aloud. The aim is to read it as though for the first time.
  4. Embrace failure.
  5. Please believe manuscripts are rejected for many reasons – don’t quit on account of rejection.