Craft & Culture Interviews

“I have no idea what ‘authenticity’ means … it’s bullshit”: an interview with Charlie Hill

Author Ruby Cowling catches up with Charlie Hill as he launches his latest book, 'I don't want to go to the Taj Mahal'
Charlie Hill is a critically acclaimed writer of novels, memoir and short stories who also tries his hand at poetry and essays.  Photograph by Peter Clark.

I’m always delighted when a cool new book comes out of a cool small press – I mean, it happens all the time, obviously, but it’s no less delightful for that. Small presses are often particularly good at books whose form isn’t necessarily easy to define or else goes against expectation, so the new book by Charlie Hill is in its natural home with Repeater. I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal: Stories of a Birmingham Boy is an addictive, confessional and grimy-funny speed-read which, shall we say, is a memoir-in-flash? No, let’s not say that, because it’s way too tortured… let’s call it… a book.

Charlie and I know each other through the fairly small and cosy – sorry, wild and edgy – world of short stories. Yet there is so much more to his writing than “just” the short story, and so I wanted to see what he had to say. I caught up with him shortly after publication of what his publisher evocatively calls a “vision of drinking, drugs, culture, sex, politics and masculinity”…

COWLING

Firstly, congratulations on the publication of I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal: Stories of a Birmingham Boy. You’ve published two novels, a collection of short stories and various other uncategorizable bits and pieces, and when I ask you about what you’re working on you’re always cagey about labels! But this is the first book of non-fiction you’ve published, right? How has it been, working on a non-fiction book? Is there a different kind of imperative behind the writing of it?

HILL

Thank you! I think the simple answer to your question is ‘no’. For me, the imperative – the compulsion to get things down on paper – is exactly the same. This is because, for me, memoir is fiction. Every element that goes into making us who we are – our memories, our perception of how we are viewed by others, even our emotional responses to particular situations – is constructed. By the time we have finished processing them they have been squashed or slotted into any number of narratives we have created to help us navigate the outside world, narratives that often bear no resemblance to those created by other people. Not that this makes them any less real, of course…

COWLING

Mm, that’s interesting. I’m aware that I’m harping on the difference between fiction and memoir (and that you’re probably getting wound up over my apparent insistence on these boundaries), so, sorry, but I’m going to carry on by asking: did you find it difficult to pitch this book to publishers because of its form? Did you feel under pressure to describe it in a certain way that didn’t feel completely authentic to you (there’s a leading question…)?

HILL

I don’t really find it difficult to pitch a book to a publisher. I mean, I think I used to, when I was starting out, but that’s partly because I was also thinking about pitching to agents and was caught up in the side of the business that is concerned less with the work itself than how to sell it. Now I just describe whatever it is I’m working on as honestly and directly as possible and leave considerations about where it might fit in the marketplace to other people. Having said that it obviously helps that I’ve been lucky with reviews in the past, so I have a profile. Of sorts, at least.

COWLING

Obviously the form you’ve chosen – short, almost postcard-like episodes that condense an experience (or set of experiences) into just a paragraph or two – strikes the reader as soon as they open the book. It makes it addictive reading, and handily cuts out “the boring bits” of traditional memoir. Was that why you chose that form – for efficiency/impact? How much do you consider the reader when you’re writing?

HILL

I didn’t really make a conscious decision about the form of the thing at the outset; over the last few years I’ve been writing a lot of very short fiction and some poetry, and it was just the way the material found its shape on the page. Once you’ve started on a project though, the question of form becomes more pressing. You ask yourself is this the best way of doing what I want to do? And when it did with this one, I could see these particular shapes were an effective way of approaching the writing of a memoir. After all, we construct other people’s lives by piecing together a disparate selection of experiences, and imposing on them a meaning of our choice. And the source material does contain a lot of gaps. 

I don’t consider an ideal or homogenised reader when I’m writing. I think you’d go mad if you did. And the work would be unfinished and terrible. However, while I do read the first drafts of my work as a writer – is this distinctive enough? – I look at later versions as a reader – does this work? So there is a reader involved in the process, it’s just that reader is me. And if it works for me, I’m happy. Which might explain a lot about the trajectory – or otherwise – of my career. Or otherwise. 

COWLING

I tend to think memoir is doomed to be “false” to a certain extent because, in a traditional form, so much context ends up being constructed around the important nugget of experience at the heart of each episode. So this postcard form feels more authentic to me. Is “authenticity” something that feels important to you, something you’re seeking, as a writer? Or is that one of those literary-criticism concepts that feels imposed from the outside?

HILL

Definitely the latter. I have no idea what ‘authenticity’ means. I guess it’s connected in some way to the truth but I’m not prepared to think about it anymore than that. It’s bullshit. Part of the language of commodification. I mean I understand that art and commerce are inextricably linked, but I’d rather leave the detail of the relationship to other people. Which might explain a lot about the trajectory – or otherwise – of my career. Or otherwise.

COWLING

I’m really interested in Birmingham as a “character” in this book, or at least a “flavour” running through it. I realised how little I’ve read, fact or fiction, that’s set there. Why? Is there something anti-literary about Birmingham? Is there something anti-Birmingham about literature?

HILL

I’m not sure. Does Birmingham have a lesser literary reputation than Manchester? Or Liverpool? Or Frankfurt? Or Lyons? I genuinely don’t know. Off the top of my head, I can name a number of contemporary writers closely associated with Birmingham and working in a variety of genres: Jonathan Coe, Catherine O’Flynn, Jim Crace, Kit de Waal, Helen Cross, Alan Beard, Sharon Duggal, Luke Kennard, Annie Murray; further back there’s John Hampson, Henry Green, etc., and doubtless countless others I haven’t come across. 

COWLING

The book manages to have an arc, almost in spite of the form, which is a really nice achievement. I think it also has a lot of sensitivity and vulnerability, in spite of its focus on the “rancid” (to quote one of your blurbs). Does it feel different to be putting a memoir out into the world, in comparison to your previous books of fiction?

HILL

Thank you. It does feel different. I lost a lot of sleep over what to include and how. There are innumerable stories that – for all of my involvement in them – don’t belong to me. As it is, I think I got one or two calls wrong, but not many.

There’s also the question of how the thing is going to be received. When you’ve written a novel or short story – however multi-faceted you hope it is – there are certain elements that you want people to pick up on. Its essence, if you like. And you like to think you have – as a writer – been able to nudge readers in this direction. By dropping in connective tissue and all that. When you’re writing a memoir with a structure such as this one, you can have no such expectations, because it’s all about the encounters and the gaps between them; you’re excising as much connective tissue as possible, which means you have even less influence over a reader’s response than usual…

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