Creatives in Profile: Interview with John Blackmore

 

john-blackmore

We’re absolutely thrilled to introduce a special Creatives in Profile interview – with the winner of our inaugural poetry competition, ‘Haikus for the NHS‘.

The project was launched early in 2017 to use the power of poetry as protest – specifically, the power of haikus as protest – in support of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS).

Somerset-based poet and musician John Blackmore was announced as the winner of our competition ahead of the national demonstration to support the NHS on Saturday 4 March.

Blackmore’s poem was chosen from a shortlist of haikus by the poets Eva Reed, Juliet Staveley and Sarah Purvis. You can read his haiku, along with those that made our short- and long-lists online.

A semi-finalist in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award, and contributor to a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Victorian Dorset Dialect poet William Barnes, Blackmore is part of the Poetry Society’s ‘Young Poets Network’.

It is an honour to present this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

First things first, many congratulations again on winning our ‘Haikus for the NHS’ prize. Could you tell us a little about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle?

BLACKMORE

Thank you very much! Gosh…I don’t know what to say…

I’m 25 years old, and live and work in rural Somerset, which is where I grew up. After university, I returned home to train to teach. I’ve been teaching English in secondary schools for four years and I’m currently head of the departments of English and Drama at the school I attended as a student…if you had told me that ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you!

When I’m not marking, I love singing and playing guitar. I’ve only recently started turning my hand to poetry, but have written songs for years. I was lucky enough to be a semi-finalist for the BBC Young Folk Award in 2011.

My rural upbringing and surroundings are a huge part of who I am; I’m not at home in a city and I don’t think I’ll ever seek to be part of the homogenous masses commuting for a 9-5 job in the metropolis. I don’t know yet whether that makes me strong-minded or foolish! I suppose I strike a pensive, solitary figure living and working in a community which most young people leave, and yes, it can be lonely, but I don’t think I’d be happier anywhere else, and it is a great place from which to write.

INTERVIEWER

What drew you to our poetry project and inspired you to get involved?

BLACKMORE

A couple of things really.

A number of my family members have worked as nurses, including my mum, but I never really had need for a hospital until last summer. In July, just before the summer holiday, I broke my finger during sports day at school. Over the following weeks, I had consultations and x-rays and physio appointments, and despite the discomfort and the inability to drive or play guitar, I found the hospital a fascinating place—like school, really: all life can be found there, a myriad of stories, and the determination of staff to do their best for all in a stressful, challenging environment really caught my attention.

More recently, just before Christmas, I was diagnosed with something more worrying and underwent CAT scans and surgery. It was while I was recovering at home, off work, that I found the poetry project and felt literally moved to write. Even when the NHS is not attacked by politicians and the media, we take healthcare so much for granted. It is not until we are put in a position of personal vulnerability or frailty that we finally take notice and value what we have.

INTERVIEWER

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

BLACKMORE

Poetry snuck up on me at primary school. I liked being able to express myself in rhyme—I think all children do—and playing with words. I didn’t enjoy school until my year-two teacher gave me confidence in my writing. For my seventh birthday, my parents bought me the “Children’s Illustrated Book of Verse”, and from then I was hooked! While I have enjoyed writing songs and analysing poems since then, it’s taken me years, decades, to find my own poetic voice. I’m certainly still developing as a writer.

I suppose my other passion would be education. I’m the bossy eldest brother (or so they tell me) to four younger siblings, so I’ve grown up imparting knowledge, sharing ideas and helping others develop skills and confidence. Becoming a teacher was a natural step, and was no great surprise to my friends and family. Helping ignite passion and curiosity within someone else is incredibly powerful, rewarding and addictive.

INTERVIEWER

Who (and what) inspires you?

BLACKMORE

Studying literature at university and now teaching English at a secondary school has given me a fair share of literary heroes. I think place and identity are particularly important to me, perhaps due in part to my Irish, English and Welsh roots, so poets who have captured a landscape or a group of people have often gained my attention. I gravitate to the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and John Clare, but also the insecurity of Victorians like William Barnes, Christina Rossetti, Hopkins and Tennyson. Twentieth Century poets like Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have also captivated me, as have those that I’ve gained a new appreciation for through teaching, like Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage.

On a day to day basis, though, it’s often the little things that inspire me to write poetry: a funny turn of phrase I’ve overheard, a half-caught smile, an interesting scene that plays out before my eyes. A lot comes down to personal experience, too, and my interactions with people and places. My song-writing draws more on the landscapes of my native west country which I suppose comes from my folk music background.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, poetry is for?  And what do you make of ‘poetry as protest’?

BLACKMORE

I think poetry at its heart is a form of communication. While you can be motivated to write an opinion piece or a novel, though, I think you must be moved to write poetry. The transmission of thoughts and emotion in often stringent poetic forms excites me as a reader and writer; distilling words and meanings in such a way that they retain personal resonance, but can still be interpreted in a myriad of ways, is both incredibly cathartic and empowering. It also inspires great empathy and consolation, too.

As a document of a time, place, person, a collective or individual feeling, then, poetry remains unrivalled. It is a medium that demands intimate reflection, forcing a deeply personal response from its readers, and so is a powerful vehicle for social change. To this end, all poetry is protest.

INTERVIEWER

‘Haikus for the NHS’ was primarily launched to support the UK’s National Health Service as it faces one of its greatest crises in decades. How important do you think institutions like the NHS are for our society?

BLACKMORE

I think institutions like the NHS are the corner stone of our society. You can’t wish for more in life than health and happiness, so offering a system of welfare for all, from cradle to grave, was an astonishing achievement born out of the horrors of war and widespread poverty. It is remarkable. Sadly, the foresight of our forefathers has been betrayed by the short-term thinking of successive governments. The sooner health—and education for that matter—are elevated from their current position as political footballs, the better.

INTERVIEWER

On the topic of what is important for society – what role do you think poetry has to play in the UK today?

BLACKMORE

Good question. I think poetry is frequently considered an unconscious voice. In our modern world of sensationalism, fake news and Facebook likes, the most read literature forms—journalism and fiction— must be “in your face”, almost militant and explicit in terms of meaning, which weakens the message it communicates and its quality.

Poetry must be the refuge of self-reflection, the point of quiet questioning, that nagging conscience that remains a touchstone of what really matters in life. It is a form that is underestimated, doubted, but remains ever-faithful: like riding a bicycle, people neglect poetry for years and years, but, at key moments in life: weddings – funerals – birthdays – it is poetry that people turn to for expression that is testament to memory, experience and meaning. If you ask children on the spot whether they like poetry, they look at you as though you’ve asked them whether they like going to the dentist. Nevertheless, with a little help and encouragement, I would say almost every child, and every person, can read a poem and take away meaning, some personal reference or wider understanding. Poetry is, and remains, integral to what it means to be human; it is vital that it continues to be so.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? Could you tell us a little about any future projects you’re working on?

BLACKMORE

I wish I knew! I go through phases of investing time and energy into each of my interests: music, poetry, teaching. I’m just finishing my Master’s degree in Education and I’m looking forward to recording a CD in the coming months, thanks to the William Barnes Society in Dorset. I’m also continuing to write and pursue publication online and in print…when I’m not in the classroom!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

BLACKMORE

He listened, smiling, remembering once more.

 

Make sure you check out Blackmore’s music on soundcloud and award-winning poetry online. And, to see his haikus for the NHS in action, watch the video below!

 

Advertisements

Creatives in profile: Interview with Papertrail Podcast founder, Alex Blott

 

profile

It’s no secret that the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always looking out for new and exciting creative projects. So when we stumbled upon the brand-spanking-new (and quite-ruddy-brilliant) Papertrail Podcast our minds were immediately filled with an assortment of creative possibilities.

Founded in 2016, Papertrail Podcast is a monthly book podcast featuring interviews with authors and creatives about their favourite books.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of this fabulous podcast, Alex Blott.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

BLOTT

Sure, I’m in my late 20’s (just got pushed into them by my birthday). I studied English Lit and Creative Writing at undergrad and then got my Masters in Professional Writing. More than anything, despite the course titles, I think my studies turned me into a better reader, and it was probably being introduced to  different writers by the course that gave me the idea for the podcast in the first place. I don’t know I’ve spent that much time thinking about my own ethos, but the site was founded to help me grow my reading and knowledge of writers, so I suppose ‘keep learning’?

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

BLOTT

All sorts of people. Writers and Podcasters, obviously. But also people who are out there getting work done. I love watching documentaries or reading articles that show people hard at work on something they obviously care about. No matter what that it is, there’s always something you can learn from watching that process.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Papertrail Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

BLOTT

Sure, Papertrail is a monthly podcast series where I speak with authors and other creative people about the books that matter to them or have influenced them in some way. We do our best to keep the show spoiler free, but throw up a warning if there are any major spoilers in the show. The three books chosen by my guests are intended to serve as both an insight into who they are as people, but also to introduce listeners to authors they might otherwise never hear of.

In terms of what inspired it… Years ago I was listening to a bunch of literary podcasts and I realised that all of my favourites at the time were American. That’s not so true anymore, but at the time I started thinking how great it would be to have a show like those that wasn’t so US centric. It took me three years to actually make my own show, and in that time I found a lot of podcasts that were doing exactly that, but I thought I had an interesting idea so I pushed on with it and here we are!

PapertrailPodcast SlantedLogo - WhiteOnRedGradient - RectangleBG.png

Papertrail Podcast is a monthly book podcast featuring interviews with writers and creatives about their favourite books. Check it out! 

INTERVIEWER

What does it take to pull together a literary podcast?

BLOTT

It’s a bit of a daft thing to say, but you need to have a genuine interest in your topic. Not just a basic ‘I like reading’ kind of interest (although that’s a great place to start). You need to really care about producing something good, and have a solid idea of what you’re trying to achieve with each episode. A lot of people start podcasts and then burn out because they didn’t really know what they wanted it to be, or they weren’t as enthusiastic about the topic as they thought. One of the reasons it took three years for me to make the show was because, although I knew I wanted to make a literary podcast, I didn’t know what the show looked like. It was only once I really narrowed it down and focused on my desire to broaden my reading that I had an idea good enough to execute on. Knowing that the show’s central purpose is to introduce people to new authors and books influences the way I interview, the way I read the books, and the way I talk about them.

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

BLOTT

Sourcing authors takes some time. I keep an eye open online for people who are writing interesting stuff or attracting a lot of great praise. Then I’ll read some of their stuff to get a better idea of who they are and what they’re interested in. Then I’ll get in touch and, if they’re keen to record, set a date. I read all of their chosen books ahead of time as well, which isn’t something I planned on doing when I started the show. Turns out if only one person has read the book it can be hard to keep a conversation going, who knew! After I’ve read the books I make a few notes, but I try to keep them very simple so that I’m always engaged in the conversation rather than re-reading what I’ve already written. If you do that you risk missing the good stuff.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other podcasters you listen to regularly for new ideas? Or any like-minded websites that you’d recommend checking out?

BLOTT

Absolutely! I could talk about this all day so I’ll trim it back to three shows that I really enjoy and respect.

First, Other People with Brad Listi. This was the show that got me thinking about what I wanted to achieve with my own podcast. Brad uses a very similar line of questioning with every one of this guests, and if you looked at the format you’d think it doesn’t sound all that interesting: ‘Where did you grow up? What were like you like as a child? Were your parent’s creative? What’s your writing practice like.’ They’re simple questions, but really they’re there to open up Brad’s guests and allow him in to talk about much more personal stuff. It’s a very genuine show, and that made me uncomfortable when I first started listening to it, but now it’s really something that I aspire to. If you check it out, persevere through Brad’s monologues, they get better as you get to know him more.

Second, The Longform Podcast. This is a fantastic series focusing on creative non-fiction writers and journalists. The podcast itself is an extension to an already brilliant website. It’s got three hosts, all with their individual interview style and approach, and the people they have on are simply fantastic. Longform was basically my gateway to better and more varied non-fiction reading and I am hugely thankful for it. In terms of what I learn from it, I enjoy the way they interview their guests, mixing in personal questions and anecdotes with more deep-dives into the work itself. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out how to do consistently well on Papertrail, but I’ll get there.

Finally, Literary Friction. This is a fantastic monthly podcast series that, for me, shines the brightest of all the current British literary podcasts. The show is consistent, professionally produced and excellently formatted. Every episode revolves around a theme, and the hosts, Octavia and Carrie, always speak on whatever topic they choose with equal measures of humour, sincerity, and intelligence. They have some fantastic guests on to make their own book recommendations and talk about their own work. It’s fantastic.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

BLOTT

I work as a freelance copywriter so pretty much just sat in front of the computer getting words down. I tend to read in the evenings or when work lulls, and then once a month I spend half a day recording and editing a new podcast episode, getting it ready for release.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

BLOTT

I don’t know that they ‘should be’ for anything. Podcasts are just like any medium, it’s all about what you can do with them. That said, I think they flourish as a source of information and learning because they’re so accessible and can be listened to on the move or in the car or while you work.

As for why they’re important. I think a lot of people can find time to listen to a podcast when they might not be able to watch a video or read a book. Also, it’s a growing creative medium, and we need as many of those as we can get!

INTERVIEWER

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

BLOTT

Greater minds than me are trying to figure that out at the moment, so I’ll bow out. If you’re interested in this question though, I heartily recommend Gimlet Media’s ‘Startup’ series. In particular, the first season and later episodes that examine Gimlet itself, and how they’re responding to the explosion of podcast popularity.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard – how do you cut through the babble?

BLOTT

It comes back to what I said earlier about knowing what you’re trying to do with the show. No matter your niche, be it a pop-culture round up, a weekly marketing trend discussion, or a DnD play-along with your friends. The best shows, the ones that rise to the top of the rankings, have a specific goal in mind, and execute on that week in, week out so that their listeners know exactly what to expect.

Also, sound quality. It makes such a difference, nobody wants to listen to your voice through a haze of static or the sound of your PC in the background.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

BLOTT

Reading time. I want to give every book its due and make sure I’m soaking in what it has to give, but sometimes a recommendation comes in that’s a bit of a tome and I know I’m going to have to grind it out and make extra time. And of course, now and again, you get a book that you’re not a huge fan of, but I haven’t found that to be a big challenge , because I’m reading them in the light of the person who recommended it, and that’s always interesting.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

BLOTT

Bloody hell.

I guess for me it’s getting into something and looking to innovate and improve every day. It’s got a lot to do with knowing in your heart that you can do it a little better or a little more interesting. You just need to figure out how. Which can also cause a lot of anxiety, so it’s important to pair that with an understanding that what you’re doing now still has worth. What’s the saying? Perfection is the enemy of done?

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

BLOTT

Yeah! Lots of great guests lined up, I was pro-active towards the end of 2016 with booking authors ahead of time so that’s freeing me up to start thinking about what else to do with the website. I’ve been speaking with a few friends about adding some written interviews and other work, which would be loads of fun if it does take off.

I’ve resolved to get better at Twitter as well. I am a terrible Twitter user. But I’m better when I have someone to talk to, so if you’re reading this and want to talk books then @PapertrailPod and we can have a natter.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

BLOTT

Secret biscuits, gobbled while she’s away. (I hope she doesn’t read this)

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring podcasters?

BLOTT

Lightning round!

  1. Do research before you start your show. Know who you like, who you want to emulate, and why they are successful.
  2. Soft launch first. Don’t do a big song and dance for your first episode if it’s your first time doing it. Put it on social, share it with your friends for feedback, but focus on a good show first. Marketing second.
  3. Audio quality matters. Invest in a decent microphone.
  4. If you’re going to use Skype, get people to record their own audio at their end and then splice it together. Don’t just record Skype.
  5. Don’t splash loads of cash on editing software. Audacity is free and excellent. Use the money you saved to buy a better mic.
  6. Don’t start a podcast to make money. If it happens, great, but most podcasts either break even, or lose you money.
  7. Join the community. There’s a fantastic network of hobbyists and professionals talking about podcasting online. I spend plenty of time lurking the podcasting subreddits and asking questions when I need help. It’s by and large a friendly and supportive community, and it’s also a great place to find listeners for your show!

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Julia Forster

Julia-Forster-B&W-©-Alice-Hendy-2014.jpg

Julia Forster was born and raised in the Midlands. She studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick and has a Masters in Creative Writing from St Andrews. While at Warwick, she was awarded the Derek Walcott prize for creative writing. She works in publishing, but has also been a magician’s assistant in Brooklyn, a nanny in Milan and a waitress in Chartres.

Her debut novel, What A Way To Go, follows the exploits of 12-year old Harper Richardson, as she navigates the tumultuous paths of childhood, while also attempting to fix her divorced parents’ broken hearts. Set against the backdrop of the high hairdos and higher interest rates of the late 1980s, Forster’s novel has been described as “fresh, touching, truthful and laugh-out loud funny” by best-selling author Deborah Moggach.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

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

FORSTER

I live with my young family in mid Wales, 150 miles due west of where I was brought up in the east Midlands. We live in a cottage, which we share with the local wildlife: there’s a large maternity roost of pipsistrelle bats in our loft and we often have little visits from mice and bird-life. I try – and fail – to grow vegetables, read a lot and attempt to look busy when I hear the kids running up the stairs.

INTERVIEWER

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

FORSTER

I am a keener reader than I am a writer, which is perhaps not a bad thing? I guess that might also have to do with having small-ish kids (they’re nine and six years-old). After all, it is far easier to pick up a book to read in between small tasks than it is to delve right back into an imaginary world and start writing again…

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

FORSTER

I’m lucky to have some amazingly creative friends. I met the poet Retta Bowen at an Arvon course when I was 19 and she’s been a permanent source of hope and inspiration ever since. I met the all-round creative genius Philip Cowell when I was 24 and he’s likewise lit up the path when I haven’t known where to tread next. I couldn’t have written a word without the inspiration of my friend here in Wales the author, editor and campaigner Angharad Penrhyn Jones.

Books are a continual source of inspiration, of course, but when you’re faced with a creative dilemma, nothing beats a phone call or sharing a leathily strong coffee with a friend who can both challenge and counsel you.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

FORSTER

I had an English teacher in Year 10 who used to tell ghost stories which were so petrifying, some pupils had special dispensation to leave the class while he told them. He made a significant impression on me, but it wasn’t until I was at university that I began to write in earnest. I was lucky to be taught at the University of Warwick when the writing programme there was in its relative infancy and as such I would often have entire office hours to myself with David Morley. That’s when I began to write poetry. Maureen Freely and Russell Celyn Jones were also teaching at the time, and it was in one of Russell’s workshops that I wrote the germ of What a Way to Go in response to his provocation to ‘write about something traumatic’.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your debut novel, What A Way To Go?

FORSTER

It’s set in 1988 during the summer of the ‘Lawson Boom’ when house prices became eye-watering, along with interest rates (and I’m sure many of us may have also shed a tear when we’ve looked back at what we wore in that era too!) Twelve year-old Harper’s parents Mary and Pete are divorced. Harper is trying to fix their broken hearts but she also enjoys her blossoming independence – both politically and emotionally. It’s a book with a big heart and a retro feel.

INTERVIEWER

It is often said that “all writing is autobiography”. How closely do you find your own, personal experiences of childhood are tied to those of your novel’s central protagonist, Harper? Is it easier to write about your life experiences through the prism of fiction – rather than, say, memoir?

FORSTER

When I was nine, I announced that I would ‘cook’. I took a packet of shell-off prawns from the freezer and attempted to make prawn cocktail. The marie rose sauce was easy: tomato ketchup and mayonnaise to a 50:50 ratio. What I didn’t know was how you defrost shellfish, so I sucked each prawn until they’d defrosted, spat them out and then served them in the sauce. I honestly didn’t think that this was bonkers.

I don’t think it’s a plot-spolier to say that this event is repeated in one scene in the novel! What I suppose this demonstrates is that a) everything is copy and, in the case of What a Way to Go, b) I was always searching for a way to inhabit that child-like imagination and point of view. Adults do tend to complicate matters.

I chose to use the prism of fiction because, frankly, I wasn’t ready to publish a memoir but also because, like many childhoods, there was plenty of emotional drama but not enough to warrant the cutting down of trees to print it out in multiple copies. An earlier iteration of this novel was in fact a full-length autobiography of 80,000 words. The manuscript serves as excellent sound insulation in our echoey cottage.

INTERVIEWER

As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

FORSTER

Imagine if you could get some kind of inoculation against self-doubt, or a course of confidence pills that you could pop while writing! Straight up, I believe that the crucial thing when writing an initial draft is not to judge yourself or your writing. Believe in yourself in epic proportions. It is all too easy to get downbeat and for the oxygen to be sucked out of an embryonic project. Just keep going.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

FORSTER

I write from a place of authenticity. I wouldn’t undertake anything I haven’t thought about from an ethical point of view.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?

FORSTER

A man in his fifties who is sitting on the tube wearing a frown and a bowler hat.

INTERVIEWER

Reading What A Way To Go, the wider historical and social context are subtly fed in – weekends in Hardingstone are “low voltage, thanks to Maggie Thatcher”, for instance. For you as a writer, how do you balance the central focus of the novel – the coming of age story of a child of divorce – with the wider story of England’s changing society through the 1980s?

FORSTER

I read Andy McSmith’s There’s No Such Thing as Society which helped me to choose the historical era in which I set the novel. It was my intention to show, without it being too invasive, how the increasing commercialisation of childhood and pop music hoodwinked a generation of kids, but also how the rising prices of housing in the UK coupled with easy credit – our flexible friend – became the enemy to happiness and skewed our sense of what it means to be free.

INTERVIEWER

In a novel driven so much by characters, what are some of the challenges you, as a writer, face in bringing them to life? And do you develop any kind of relationship with the characters on the page?

FORSTER

I cut several characters out and amalgamated a few after the first draft because the chorus was too large. I wanted Harper to have two good friends as counterpoints – Derek and Cassie – but also I wanted both parents to have confidants – Oona and Patrick. As the novel is told in the first person, there is quite a lot of dialogue as this is one of the few options that were available to me for Harper to find out information that she wouldn’t otherwise have known. I did develop a relationship with the characters, especially Harper, who I felt very fond of by the end because of her ability to straight-talk, and tell a joke. I can’t tell a joke for toffee; I always forget the punch line.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

FORSTER

I don’t have another persona who helps me write. For me, it is a matter of getting myself as far away from the keyboard as possible as it were, and becoming more of a conduit. As soon as ego starts to get in the way, things become murky. The ideal is to have a direct line to the writing in hand and not to over-think. It’s an intuitive process, but it takes a lot of practice and a large part of my writing career to date has been about failing and learning from that process.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

FORSTER

I think there will always be authors who experiment, set trends and defy norms. I don’t think any of us can predict where the form of the novel is heading. That is what makes reading a book so exciting.

INTERVIEWER

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

FORSTER

I am working on a project on the theme of sorrow.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

FORSTER

Piano washed out by spring tide.

INTERVIEWER

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

FORSTER

  1. Believe in yourself.
  2. Turn off the Internet.
  3. Read books intimately.
  4. Pretend you know what you’re doing.
  5. Remember: you have other body parts aside from fingers.
  6. Caffeinate regularly.
  7. Celebrate each small achievement.
  8. Be supportive to fellow authors.
  9. Invest in wax earplugs.
  10. Ignore housework until it reaches biohazard level.

 

Final_Cover

To purchase What a Way to Go visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1782397523/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i2_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0J8NWC2D9RANBKKCY5QB&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=26de8ef0-2ad7-412c-8634-6cd03b7b73e2&pf_rd_i=desktop

Follow Julia on Twitter

or visit her website here!

 

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Pondering Media

 

In the latest of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce you to Karen and Michael Healy – the brother and sister duo behind the award-winning original comedy production company, Pondering Media.

Karen Headshot

Karen Healy – Pondering Media’s founder, CEO and perennial lead performer.

Karen Healy is Pondering Media’s founder, CEO and perennial lead performer. Her work on Pondering’s award-winning shorts has earned her strong press attention, including write-ups in the Irish Post. Her credits include RTE’s IFTA-nominated Irish Pictorial Weekly, numerous roles with famed immersive theatre company Reuben Feels, and countless other adverts, shorts, and performance art pieces. She’s also a fixture in the London stand-up comedy scene. Karen is a passionate advocate of women in the arts and is a big supporter of recently launched Bechdel Theatre Festival in London.

Michael.jpg

Michael Healy – seen here on set of his debut cinematic short, ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

With a background in marketing, Michael Healy has helmed numerous projects for commercial clients over the last five years, as both writer and director, including commercials for radio. With a focus on comedy, his online shorts have attracted press attention in both the UK and Ireland. He holds a first class degree in Film Studies from Trinity College Dublin and Would You Like Some Toast is his debut cinematic short.
Founded in 2014, Pondering Media has gone from strength to strength – building a reputation for the weird, the eccentric, and the sometimes upsetting. You can check out their videos on Youtube, and follow them on Twitter here. We hope you enjoy this detailed interview…

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

 

PONDERING MEDIA

Michael – I’m Michael, I’m a writer and film director working mainly in comedy. I come from a background of hopeless, awful, soul-destroying marketing work. And I guess my ethos is to have a unique voice, but to put the audience first. I want to avoid self-indulgence, and also avoid ever working in marketing ever again.

Karen – I’m Karen, I’m a producer, actor and new to the scene stand-up comedian. I come from a background of dropping out of college and happily working tearing theatre tickets, selling ice-cream and pointing out where the toilets are. I suppose my ethos is depicting entertaining, strong female characters. I’ve never been drawn to roles in which the character’s main function is “the girlfriend”, which is very difficult to come across. Michael and I are on the same page when it comes to what makes an appealing character and we share the same sense of humour, which is great.

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you always known you wanted to work in comedy?

 

PONDERING MEDIA

M- You know, I didn’t really set out to be a comedy specialist right away. Like most obnoxious filmmakers, I wanted to make heavy stuff about the grim realities of life that only middle class college students ever understand. But my natural response to basically everything dark in life is to laugh. Funerals, wars, executions – all full of awkward hilarity. And when you’ve got that kind of pathology about you, you’re stuck in comedy forever.

K- I knew that if I ever decided to get back into performing it would be in comedy. I think it’s my default setting. It comes naturally to me to always see the humour in a scene, regardless of its premise. Nothing beats the buzz on a set where everyone is laughing. And who doesn’t like playing with prop moustaches?

 

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

PONDERING MEDIA

M -Fellini is my stock fancypants answer to this question (not sure how fancypants you guys want to get). He’s one of the few artists that managed to be both absurd and extremely human. I also go back to Roy Andersson and Aki Kaurismaki as comedy directors all the time. Both masters of depicting sublime, painful failure in comedy.

K -I just finished watching Horrace and Pete and was totally blown away. I think Louis CK is incredible at creating socially important conversations and fairly representing all sides of that particular argument.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City are two heroes of mine at the moment. They have created a very funny show that depicts an unwavering female friendship and makes little to no reference to relationships or career-pressure. Hurrah!

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists – particularly comedians – today?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Actually, I think aspiring artists have more advantages today than artists have had in the past. It’s easier to network, easier to create, easier to find a platform. I think artists are usually their own worst enemies, and I include myself in that. I’ve found producers and executives are quite open to giving people opportunities – but they want to find organized, audience-focused people and have no time for self-indulgence and daydreaming. Which sucks, because those are great craic.

K- I can only speak from my experience but at the moment there’s such a huge platform for comedians who are starting out. You will find an open mic every night of the week in London which is great for practice. The only thing is it can be mildly soul-destroying. Most of the people you performing to are other comedians waiting for their turn. It’s a good idea to keep an eye for any competitions for new-comers. “Funny Women” are a fantastic organization who provide support for new female comics.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about Pondering Media, and how you established the production company?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Karen and I were both drifting from gig to gig, her as an actor and me as a writer, and at around the same time we both realized we needed a proper plan and a bit of direction or we’d never get anywhere. So we got organized, started handling our own corporate gigs, published some stuff for the web, had a couple of viral bits do well and now we’ve just wrapped on our first full, cinematic short. All inside a year or so.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any projects or films you’ve made that you are particularly proud of?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- I gotta be boring and say the film we just completed is my favourite. We had a bigger crew than we’d worked with in the past and the whole process was a huge learning curve. Seeing it finally get proper laughs from audiences is the best feeling in the world.

K- I have to agree. I’m very proud of how “Would You Like Some Toast?” turned out, majorly thanks to our producer, Richard Wade. He gathered a brilliant cast and crew and it really is a credit to them as it was made on such a low budget.

Would You Like Some Toast_.jpg

On the set of ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

INTERVIEWER

What are the key differences between performing on stage to a live audience and performing to a camera? How do you adapt your performance depending on the different medium?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- I have more experience acting on screen so performing on stage for me is still pretty daunting, but exhilarating at the same time. I think you have to be aware of adapting your performance depending on the atmosphere in the room and the general reception you’re getting from the crowd. In stand up anyway.
As for acting on screen, sure there’s room to try something in several different ways but there’s almost just as much pressure as you’re often under time constraint and everything is heightened on screen. You can’t fake it when the camera is fully zoomed in on your face.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of comics and spoken word artists talk about a fear of ‘dying’ on stage – has that ever happened to you, and how do you cope with the fear of that happening?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- There is always the fear of that happening. I don’t think that ever goes away. Some jokes could land well with an audience one night and could be greeted with bemused silence another. I had a gig recently where I completely bombed. I was half way through my set and I realized this was not gonna get any better. But I gave it my all, finished it and bowed. I was obviously slightly disheartened afterwards but woke up the next day singing, “I BOMBED LAST NIGHT!” That’s when I really felt like I was doing stand-up. You can’t grow as a performer if you don’t have the occasional crap gig.

INTERVIEWER

For you personally, what makes a ‘good’ gig?

PONDERING MEDIA

K- I think when there is a happy, up-for-it atmosphere it makes performing a lot easier. When the audience gets on board with immersing themselves in the night it feels more like you’re having a chat with them rather than talking at them. I’m delighted whenever something new gets a laugh, that way I can go home and expand on it. I’m also relieved when I manage to not burst into flames.

INTERVIEWER

What is comedy for?

PONDERING MEDIA

M- Comedy’s all about exploring the parts of our lives that don’t fit in with how we like to view the world. We like to think that we’re part of a clear narrative, with proper goals and challenges and destinations. Comedy is about showing up how dumb that idea is.

K- Comedy is an opportunity to be more honest than you would be in everyday life. Being honest is what the audience relates to, it’s what gets them on your side. Tears and laughter are one in the same. Laughter is just another form of release and that’s what comedy is for, to provide the audience with a release, an escape.

INTERVIEWER

In our digital world, with so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard.

PONDERING MEDIA

M – Slowly and steadily, and with the support of collaborators and other pros. And also, by incessantly emailing people who are higher up the ladder than us are and asking them for favours. That’s probably the most important part.

Speevey Scene.png

Still from Pondering Media’s ‘Would You Like Some Toast’

INTERVIEWER

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

PONDERING MEDIA

M- We’re finishing up the fundraising for our next project, a short set in a political campaign hit by a sudden scandal. There’s a lot of prep work to do now, given the size of the budget and the extent to which we could catastrophically screw it up, so it’ll be a few months before we’re in production. And we also have a top secret, mad ambitious project in development too, but we can’t talk about it until we’re sure it’s actually going to happen or we’ll look sad.

INTERVIEWER

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

PONDERING MEDIA

M- 1. Be a professional and treat it like a job, even if that means faking it.

  1. Understand that producers and editors invest in people, not just projects. They want to support people who are easy to work with and have a plan.
  2. Have a plan. Even if it’s a crap plan. You’ll eventually figure out what a not-crap plan looks like.
  3. Be brutal with yourself and always think about your audience. There are no points for creative intent or grand gestures. If the audience can’t walk in and get a strong impression of you and your work right away, you’re wasting your time.
  4. Don’t be a diva, and treat your collaborators with respect.

K- Just keep doing it. Even if you’re dying on stage every night, just keep getting up there and doing it, you will eventually find your voice. That’s what I’m doing.

Creatives in profile: Interview with the Extra Secret Podcast

IMG_4186

“A podcast should be for anything you want it do be” Extra Secret Podcast. 

Just over two years ago, two men had an idea. It was a humble idea. It was a bold idea. It was almost as a good an idea as building your very own robot butler to help you run your high school full of teenage clones of famous historical figures (but nothing could be quite as good as that idea).

Their names were Eric and Dan, and for the past two years they have been the masterminds behind a truly awesome, and also beautifully simple, podcast – the Extra Secret Podcast, to be precise.

Now, being a secret, we wouldn’t want to give too much away at this point, except to tell you to check out Eric’s fantastic list of tips for aspiring podcasters.

It’s an honor to introduce this detailed interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves, your background and ethos.

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan and have lived all over the Metro Detroit Area. I also lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Background: Never graduated college, went to a trade school and edited TV commercials for a number of years. I moved to Wisconsin where I became a professional body piercer for six years. Both of those things made me exceptionally unhappy so then I moved back to Michigan where I got a job at a comic book shop. If you listen to the podcast I’m notoriously out of touch with what’s going on in the world, so Eric finds things that get me worked up. Ultimately, I’m not a super angry person about everything but I do get frustrated with the world

ERIC : I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life. I went to elementary (primary) school, high school, and some of college with Dan. Ultimately, I graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in English and promptly got an office job that didn’t remotely have anything to do with my degree. I grew up on a steady diet of comics, cartoons, and sci-fi and that’s pretty much stuff that I’m still interested in to this day.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: I would have to say that a lot of my friends inspire me. I know it seems like an easy answer but I’ve somehow managed to be in close proximity to several musicians, visual artists, other podcasters or performers that do really amazing work. So I kind of feel like the odd man out (laughs). My friend Dot Org composed our theme music and my cousin composed the music for our After Dark episodes. I’m a big fan of British writer Warren Ellis, he’s always doing something interesting. My parents are some of the funniest people I know whether they know it or not.

Oh, and Supreme Leader Trump. All hail Trump! That last one was only half true. I live in constant fear of waking up this November to discover that our portion of the world has gone Mad Max. So there’s a definite drive for me to get as much good stuff produced before the world ends.

DAN: That’s a tough one… I read a lot. So, a lot of stuff that inspire me are things I read in comic books which I know can be seen as childish. I read a lot of stories of hope, lot of stories of not giving up, things of that nature. With my background of having a few problems in my life, it’s good for me to read those sorts of things. And it definitely helps when I get other people interested in the same stuff. Feels good.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about the Extra Secret Podcast – what inspired you to first set the podcast up; and how has it developed from then?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: A long time ago when I was still in Madison, I had started listening to some of director Kevin Smith’s podcasts. I really enjoyed what they did. It was just them having a conversation. I had come back to Michigan a few times and me and Eric had conversations about starting a podcast and doing it over Skype; but it never really came together until I moved back. I had another co-host lined up back in Madison but the conversation wasn’t there, it wasn’t really working. How has it grown? We’re less nervous now. We have a good rhythm. We’re good at taking seemingly innocuous things and filling an hour long show with our brand of weirdness.

ERIC: Some of my friends were podcasting, I loved what they were doing and I wanted in on the action. That sweet podcast action. As Dan said, we talked about starting our own podcast and it finally came to be when he moved back to Michigan. Since we’ve been doing it the format hasn’t changed much. We used to do four to five episodes a month, but we were both starting to burn out and finding the time became difficult. Twice a month is much more manageable. On occasion I’ll do an Extra Secret Podcast: After Dark episode which is just me and a rotating co-host. Sometimes it could be a friend or mine or someone I want to interview. Those are a nice break from the regular format, but the core show will always be me and Dan.

INTERVIEWER

How do you plan and prepare for each new episode?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: Usually, the second we stop recording I’ll think of three other things I wanted to talk about. In the time between recordings I’ll keep my eyes open for funny news stories that I think we’ll be able to squeeze some humor out of. Other times I’ll have something weird or funny happen to me that will make for a good story on the podcast. I know it sounds cliché, but I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times just in case something happens and I have to commit it to paper ASAP. It also helps to structure the upcoming episodes so our conversations have some semblance of direction.

DAN: (laughs) Eric tells me what we may talk about! Basically the first half of the show is news, notes, gripes; the back half of the podcast is a bit more structured with a set topic. Eric is really the producer of the show, he gives me some direction. I’m notoriously forgetful from years of past substance abuse problems so he has to constantly remind me. I usually do some prep right before the show so I’m excited to talk about things. But the bulk of the heavy lifting is done by Eric.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: I’m usually up around 4 or 5 AM everyday, which is awful. I’ll check my news feeds to see what’s going on in the world while I get ready for work. My work day usually starts around 8 and I get out for the day around 5 PM. My downtime is spent reading, catching up on the handful of TV shows I watch, and listening to music and so on. I’m very much a homebody, which a polite way of saying “hermit.”

DAN: I get up around 8 AM, feed the dogs, eat breakfast, get to my shop around 10:30. It depends on the day. There’s always something new coming into the comic shop so it keeps it fresh, something to look forward to. I’ve never had a day where I don’t want to be there. I love working there. My boss is cool and so are the customers. I don’t watch a ton of TV aside from stuff we discuss on the podcast. Pretty much my days revolve around nerd shit.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a podcast should be for? Why are they important?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: I think a podcast should be for anything you want it to be. The great thing about podcasts is it’s a very open-ended thing. These days with people wanting to be “YouTube famous” or “podcast famous”…if you want to try and do it for a living that’s cool. But the problem with that is that you eventually start sounding like everyone else, because you’re trying to broaden your appeal. Podcasts are important because it’s one of the last things you can do that has no censorship. You can do whatever you want, you know? We’ve never been censored. We’ve talked about all sorts of weird stuff on the show and that’s not something you’ll hear on mainstream TV or radio. It’s very important for podcasts to have that freedom.

ERIC: I agree with Dan, it can be anything you want it to be. We generally keep things pretty light but on occasion we do get serious and talk about things that are bothering us. Medical issues, depression, and so on. I think podcasts are important because it’s a creative outlet. For me, I don’t have the time to sit down and write like I used to. I’d love to be able to sit down and write for eight hours each day but it’s not in the cards right now. But I do have time to sit down with my friend for an hour every couple weeks and put on a show. It certainly scratches that creative itch.

INTERVIEWER

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

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: To me, it’s almost like a resurgence of the Golden Age of Radio. There’s this new medium out there that’s potentially without limits. I really dig that shows like Welcome to Night Vale and Thrilling Adventure Hour are essentially just new radio plays where the listener has to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. And that applies to other podcasts too. There are podcasts for virtually any subject and I think that it makes for a more engaged listener.

DAN: It’s really kind of replacing radio. People are getting bored a little bit with pop music or talk radio. It all bleeds together. With a podcast you can listen to someone on the other end of the globe. We’ve never been closer together than we are now. Sometimes uncomfortably so.

INTERVIEWER

When there are so many podcasts, and so many different voices speaking at once – how do you try to make your voices heard?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: We’ve never cared about that. We have never decided that we’re going to go out and make people listen to us. We don’t advertise. It’s tough to reach a vast audience without dumping a ton of money into it. Good content will propel the show forward. Ultimately if you’re trying to do a podcast to get famous, have a million listeners…you’re doing it wrong.

ERIC: Yeah, we’re really just doing this for us. Making each other laugh is pretty much the mission and if anyone is listening, that’s really incidental. We have a small (very small) audience and they seem to tolerate what we’re doing so we’re happy with that.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: Finding the time to record is always fun. Keeping a regular schedule for episodes can be difficult as well. When we stopped doing weekly episode we were shooting for the 15th and 30th of the month but even then we had to revise that to a “twice a month” schedule. I always worry that we may repeat ourselves, or that we’re getting complacent, or we’re just straight up boring.

DAN: Time. Getting the energy to do it. We used to do it weekly and that got to be very taxing. We were worried about running out of thing to talk about. We worried about not having enough time to do research for things. Finding quality stuff to talk about that’s not the same as everybody else is nothing thing. We try to focus a bit more on weird news sources and stuff that interests us. Stuff we’re passionate about.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

ERIC: For me, it’s just the art of making anything. Admittedly, It’s a pretty broad definition. But I do think there has to be some kind of intent behind the action of making something. It should evoke larger ideas. For our podcast we’re creating a larger narrative about two assholes forever trapped in each other’s orbit, two grown men barely in control of their own lives.

DAN: I’m not really much of an artist in the traditional sense. When I was younger I was into art and photography so I probably would’ve had a better answer for that then (laughs). Now, to me, whatever you decide to go out and do… I’m very literal in the sense that creativity is just creating. That’s me. I wish I had some mystical answer for you but that’s not how I am.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for the podcast? Any exciting projects or episodes in the pipeline?

EXTRA SECRET PODCAST

DAN: We always talk about Motor City Comic Con in May. That’s always a good time. Mostly we take it week by week. We don’t tend to do big projects because we don’t have a ton of time on our hands.

ERIC: I’m sure I’ll be doing more After Dark episodes in the future, I’m always looking for interesting people to talk to. In the past I’ve had conversations with the musician Brook Pridemore and artist/storyteller Morgan Pielli both of which are archived at extrasecretpodcast.com!

Creatives in profile: Interview with Paul M.M. Cooper

Paul Cooper

Paul M.M Cooper was born in South London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales, in what he has described as a “house full of books”. He is a graduate of the acclaimed creative writing courses at both the University of Warwick and the University of East Anglia.

His book, River of Ink, was one of the biggest literary deals at the London Book Fair in 2014 and tells the story of Asanka – a 13th Century Sri Lankan poet forced to translate a piece of mythology for a tyrannical king. The book (you can read our review here) is set around historical events, and is based on years of research Cooper conducted during the time he spent living and working in Sri Lanka.

He has written for magazines and websites, and has also worked as an archivist, editor and journalist.

It’s an honour to introduce this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

COOPER

I’m a novelist and language enthusiast from Cardiff. I write books about art and history and the heroism that comes from ordinary people.

 INTERVIEWER

What was your childhood like?

 COOPER

It was good! I grew up in Cardiff since I was 6, which has left me with an affinity for rain and a distrust of places with flat countryside.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?

COOPER

I wanted to be a nature photographer at one point. I think being a writer is similar to that in a lot of ways, but you don’t have to go outside if you don’t want to, which makes it superior.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

COOPER

The likely people are authors like Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Teju Cole and Roberto Bolaño.

INTERVIEWER

Your debut novel, River of Ink, was famously the subject of a multiple-publisher auction in 2014 – could you tell us a little more about your journey from writing the first words of the book down through to getting that book deal?

COOPER

It took about 5 years between those two points. I lived in Sri Lanka for some time, I did two degrees and nearly lost my marbles. There were quite a few points when I wanted to give up, but the story really demanded that I finish it. I met my agent at an event showcasing some of the work by UEA graduates, and spent a few months frantically editing and re-editing the book to send to them. Once they offered me representation, we took the book to the London Book Fair. I was working as a reporter at the time, and managed to convince my employers that there were some stories that needed writing there – so I got to go there and meet the editor from Bloomsbury, who went on to bid against another publisher. I started fielding a lot of calls, and most of the deal was hashed out in the stairwell of the office I was working at, near Southwark Bridge.

INTERVIEWER

And what about afterwards – is it strange handing over your book to the editors and waiting for it to be published? What’s it like seeing your name on the shelves of bookstores?

COOPER

It is strange to have something that is a very private project suddenly pored over by scores of others. Publishing is quite a slow industry, though – so I’ve had some time to get used to the idea. It’s great to see the book on the shelves. I’ve only had one weird moment so far: while I was standing in a shop I saw someone pick up River of Ink, and my heartbeat shot up suddenly. I’m not usually prone to things like that, but I had to leave the shop because it freaked me out.

INTERVIEWER

Who are (and who have been) your most important teachers?

COOPER

I’ve had some great teachers over the years. Definitely Amit Chaudhuri and Rebecca Stott, who took me under their wing a little at the UEA, and Maureen Freely and George Ttoouli at Warwick. I also had a couple of teachers who really encouraged me to write in secondary school. I think behind every writer is a person who once said ‘that could be you’ – for me it was some great English teachers.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve studied writing at both Warwick and UEA – what is your view on the value of creative writing courses?

 COOPER

They are what you make of them. Like a music school or dance school, they can initiate you into a craft, but they can’t give you the final spark that makes you really great. For me it was good to spend time around people who took the craft of writing utterly seriously, and focus all my time on getting better at writing. Ultimately you have to do most of the ‘teaching’ yourself, but it’s a great place to do it. I think there’s a lot of valid concern going around about the idea of certain people being priced out of becoming writers, though – and it’s important that voices from outside the academies are getting the same opportunities as those within.

INTERVIEWER

You spent a year after graduating from the University of Warwick living in Sri Lanka – where River of Ink is set (albeit some 700 years earlier). How big a part did that year play in helping you craft the novel? And what was it like to come back to England and write and edit the novel with the inevitable distance away from a place that is so vividly brought to life in your book?

 COOPER

A lot of the book was actually written in Sri Lanka, and especially in the Polonnaruwa Library, which is in view of the old citadel wall and the palace across the canal. As well as the story, I’d also filled notebooks with notes and sketches, and I took photos and videos constantly, so I had a lot of raw material to work from whenever my memory failed me back in the UK. I couldn’t have written this book without spending large amounts of time wandering the ruins of Polonnaruwa and imagining how it once might have looked, the noise and colour in its streets – so it was very important for me. Part of Asanka’s struggle in the book is also about trying to write about a place distant and unfamiliar to him, so the distance fed a little into my character’s frustrations also.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘writing process’? What do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

 COOPER

Just getting words onto the page is important. I heard someone describe this recently as ‘piling sand into the sandbox to build things out of it later’ – this is usually how my first drafts work. I write a lot, fill scenes with everything I can, and then winnow things down later so it is light and strong in the final draft.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind as you write?

 COOPER

I have lots of readers in mind: they all sit on my shoulder in a little chorus. My favourite reader is the enthusiastic lover of stories, who likes things to be exciting and page-turning. My least favourite reader is the pedantic historian of thirteenth-century Sri Lankan history and culture, who caused me no end of headaches. I believe I’ve written a book both these readers can enjoy, however.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

COOPER

Yes – especially when depicting another culture and time. I have a horror of embodying the classic leering orientalist gaze, so I found a lot of tension between accurately depicting the time and place, the sensibilities of the characters, and avoiding the kind of otherising that often takes place in books written in South Asian settings. The book is rabidly anti-imperialist as I see it, and my villain Magha embodies a lot of what I see to be poisonous in the colonial and neo-colonial projects. I was determined that modern Sri Lankan people should be able to recognise their country in the pages of River of Ink, but also that the book should embody certain universal ideals.

INTERVIEWER

River of Ink explicitly deals with the idea that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – and with the incredibly important role writers and artists play in holding leaders – and indeed society as a whole – to account. And yet we live in a world where writing freedom is increasingly restricted; not only through restrictive laws in countries where writers can actually be imprisoned, but also in supposedly democratic countries where writers like James Kelman and Julian Barnes have pointed out that it’s harder and harder to get novels published that are different or challenging to the establishment. Kelman even said the UK media establishment “colludes in censorship and suppression” – a view Noam Chomsky would probably sympathise with. What’s your take on writing and creative freedom?

COOPER

I think there’s a will to liberation that inheres in all writing and art, no matter what uses it’s put to, which is a big part of River of Ink. Artist around the world are currently struggling beneath autocratic regimes, and their art is often the mode they use to express their dissent. However even in democratic countries there’s a lot of implicit suppression involved in the publishing industry. This isn’t conscious I think, but more systematic by virtue of it still being a very white industry. That’s only now really beginning to change, and it’s great to see writers of all backgrounds beginning to get to speak. Even generally liberal institutions like the creative arts and publishing are necessarily self-perpetuating entities, and are therefore reactionary to some degree – so it can really be about the market forcing them to change. Go buy books from people whose voices aren’t being heard, in other words!

INTERVIEWER

Where does the power of literature come from?

COOPER

I’d say the way it allows us to imagine ourselves into situations wholly different to our own. People who don’t read novels miss out on some of the most profound acts of imaginative empathy, and I can’t help but think it makes you a more inflexible and dogmatic person – which is bad for the soul I believe.

INTERVIEWER

What is a writer for?

COOPER

Telling stories!

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?

COOPER

The novel has been on the verge of death for 100 years, and presumably will be for another 100. People in publishing can be pretty pessimistic, but I don’t see anything to be gloomy about. People are now consuming literature in more different forms, from a wider variety of sources, and countries of origin, than ever before. I think narrative television has replaced cinema as the dominant storytelling form at least in the North Atlantic – but the novel is still intricately bound to people’s desires to enter other lives and experience beauty.

INTERVIEWER

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

COOPER

It’s a little too early to talk too much about it, but people who enjoyed River of Ink will get a lot out of the next book too. I’m writing about a different setting, and even adding in a modern element to the historical story. But I hope to strike the same balance between storytelling and artistry that I think has struck a chord with readers of the first book.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

COOPER

The desire to make things no one else thought could exist.

INTERVIEWER

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

COOPER

  1. Read everything, and not just the things you like
  2. Stay playful, and write the books you want to write, not what you think people expect or would respect you for writing
  3. Stay humble and learn your craft: read about writing
  4. Learn about good stories, not just about good prose
  5. Stay in for the long haul. It takes most people (myself included) at least 10 years to go from beginning writing seriously to getting published
  6. Almost all who try disqualify themselves by giving up
  7. Show your writing to people and develop a thick skin as soon as possible. people will help you if you’re not sensitive about it
  8. If you get bored with a project, it’s probably because you wandered away from what you loved about it in the first place. it happens a lot
  9. Lots of people will tell you it will never happen
  10. Whatever project you eventually want to write, start right now!

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with Iain Maloney

0020

In the latest of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series, it’s an honour to introduce fantastic author, Iain Maloney.

Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and now lives in Japan. He is the author of three novels, First Time Solo, Silma Hill and The Waves Burn Bright and has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and the Dundee International Book Prize.

 

INTERVIEWER

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

MALONEY

I’m originally from Aberdeen, Scotland. I lived there until I was 23 and studied English literature at the University of Aberdeen. Then I moved to Glasgow to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I’m currently based in Japan but I come back to the UK regularly to do various book related events.

INTERVIEWER

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

MALONEY

Writing is what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. I first began writing songs when I was about 12 or 13 years old but I’ve never been a very good singer and growing up in the countryside there weren’t many people interested in starting a band, so I began writing poetry, then prose, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I was writing for about 20 years before my first book was published and creativity has been central to my life for so long, I couldn’t imagine a life without writing.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MALONEY

From a writing perspective, people like David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce – writers who do things with language that is startling and original. They, to me, are the pinnacle of what can be achieved with a pen and a blank sheet of paper. When I was wallowing in my formative years, Iain (M) Banks was a huge influence on me and even today I still find fossils of that influence in the way I plot or manipulate voice to achieve certain effects. His death was a huge loss to literature.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

MALONEY

Probably the most important initial moment for me as a writer was joining the University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society in 1998. None of the people I knew at school were interested in writing and until then it had been a solitary activity. Meeting others who were as passionate about writing as me, people who liked nothing more than sitting around talking about literature, reading each other’s work and critiquing it seriously (while partaking of a drink or many) opened up a new world. It confirmed that this was what I wanted to do. I was lucky that, at that time, Alan Spence and Sheena Blackhall were working at the university. They both gave me help and advice which I will always be grateful for. Later on, Zoe Strachan became my tutor at Glasgow University. She’s a wonderful teacher and I still use many of the tips and techniques she taught me.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your two novels – First Time Solo and Silma Hill?

MALONEY

First Time Solo is the story of Jack Devine, a farmer’s son from the North-East of Scotland. In 1943 he joins the RAF and leaves home to train to be a pilot. The book follows him through his training as he makes friends and starts a jazz band. When another trainee dies Jack has to choose between morality and loyalty. It’s a book about friendship and identity, set against the backdrop of World War Two.

Silma Hill is a very different creature. Set in late-18th century rural Scotland, it tells the tale of a village torn apart by accusations of witchcraft. Centering on Reverend Burnett and his daughter, Fiona, it’s a Gothic tragedy set during a time when the clash between science, religion and superstition made for a volatile society.

INTERVIEWER

As you write and prepare to write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

MALONEY

Planning. I wrote a couple of novels before First Time Solo and they were messy, woolly affairs because I set off with a character, a setting and a fair wind, and quickly got lost. I don’t plan down to every last detail but I need to know roughly where I’m going and have a general idea of how to get there. When Captain Cook set off around the world, he had a good idea where he was going and where he would end up. The excitement and adventure was in what he might discover on the way. My first two attempts were more like hacking into a thick jungle with a machete until I was exhausted, lost and too disheartened to go on.

The other important thing is to always remember that a draft is just a draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the start. Even once a publisher has accepted a manuscript you’re only at the start of the editing and rewriting process.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

MALONEY

That’s a tough question. On a basic level we have an ethical responsibility because we are humans, part of human society, and everyone has ethical responsibility. We often like to think we are outsiders, observing and commenting, but that’s a myth. We also have an ethical responsibility to our subjects, particularly when dealing with people or events that are / were real. My latest novel, The Waves Burn Bright, is about the Piper Alpha disaster. 167 men died when the oil platform exploded in 1988. By taking on that subject I have a huge ethical responsibility to their memory, to the survivors and to the families. I also have an ethical responsibility to the facts of history. The events surrounding Piper Alpha are set. I cannot mess around with them for my own ends. By choosing to deal with a real disaster rather than creating one from my imagination, I took on the responsibility of getting it right.

On the other hand, ethical responsibility has come to mean, particularly on social media, not offending people. I see a rise in self-censorship. Writers are afraid to commit to a political or moral position, are afraid to tackle some of the most vital issues of our time or take on controversial subjects because someone might get offended and kick off on Twitter. A writer’s job, for me, is to examine the world around us. My publisher, Adrian Searle, recently wrote that writers need to be sociologists as well as artists and he’s right. We live in a time when politicians and corporations believe they can do what they like because no one will hold them to account. The majority of the press certainly won’t. I think writers should. We have an ethical responsibility to engage honestly with our stories, with our subjects, not to shy away because a handful of people won’t agree. We saw this in Scotland where writers who engaged openly and publicly (on both sides) with the Independence Referendum became the victims of some atrocious abuse. What they had to go through was awful but what is worse is that so many others were scared of joining the debate because of the abuse that awaited them. That’s sad and it means the trolls are winning. We can’t let that happen.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write?

MALONEY

I don’t, though my publisher wishes I did. Publishing works by selling books to a readership and publishing companies rest easier when a writer complies and aims everything at that demographic. Doing what Iain Banks did and splitting your work into science fiction and non-science fiction undermines the way books are marketed at the moment. This is entirely sensible and if you have a genre you love and want to stick to, great, but my inspiration ranges wildly over genres and eras and characters and stories and I want to write them all. It’s much more acceptable for film directors to follow a story regardless of the genre (take Tarantino, no one complains that he jumps genres, even within the same movie. No one told David Fincher that because he’d started with Aliens 3 he couldn’t do Seven or Benjamin Button). It’s a shame that the pressures on publishing – both financial and social – are pushing the industry away from risk-taking. I understand that and sympathise, but at the same time it’s frustrating.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that “audience engagement for a writer is a strange thing” – could you expand on that at all; how do you adapt to those rather strange situations where the audience attending public appearances haven’t read much – if any – of the writer’s writing?

MALONEY

I was talking about the difference between, say, a stand up comedian and a writer. The comedian knows within seconds whether a joke has worked or not and can react accordingly. For writers, it might take years for all the opinions and reviews to settle into a general response to the book, by which time we’re usually two or three books removed. So when we do events – at least at my level – you’re talking to people about something they haven’t read, and maybe won’t read for months even if they buy it then and there (we all have the ‘to be read’ shelf).

It may be different for writers like David Mitchell or Margaret Atwood, but I’m not nearly famous or successful enough to have hundreds of advance copies circulating the media so with a couple of exceptions everyone at my launch will be completely new to the book. In some ways it makes the writer’s job even easier. You are introducing the book – what’s it about, why did you write it, give an example of the text. There’s an element of being a salesperson.

INTERVIEWER

How do you find your work as an editor and journalist influences and compliments your work as a writer?

MALONEY

Editing and journalism – specifically reviewing – has helped my writing enormously. It’s much easier to be objective and critique someone else’s work. It’s easier to see the flows and ebbs of a text, to find bad habits and good techniques when I have no emotional attachment to the story and the characters, and then it becomes easier to see those things in my own work.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

MALONEY

I think the financial pressures on the industry are causing it to be too risk-averse. Independent publishers like Freight are doing wonderful things, finding new writers, taking on books and projects that the big companies wouldn’t touch, but they are working under such difficult circumstances that it’s hard to see how the situation can be sustained indefinitely. We’re experiencing a reallignment in the industry which is making everything uncertain and unpredictable but for writers the most important thing hasn’t changed: people haven’t stopped reading books. What’s changing is the means by which writers and readers connect. While financially writers are taking a huge hit, creatively it’s an exciting time.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MALONEY

Loosely, it’s the urge to create something new, something that hasn’t existed before. I try not to examine the urge to closely in case I scare it away.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

MALONEY

As a writer these days you have to be pro-active, both online and off. Independent publishers don’t have big marketing divisions and big budgets, so gone are the days when a writer can put a book out into the world and consider their job done. We’re expected to engage with our readers, to be active on Goodreads, to join in the conversation on sites like this, to be on Twitter and Facebook promoting our work. We need to be out doing readings, going to spoken word events, building a reputation and a presence. Some people are resistant but I love it. The act of writing is solitary but being part of a wider community is a lot of fun.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

MALONEY

I have my own writing voice which developed naturally, and comes through most when I’m writing non-fiction. In a novel the most important voice is that of the characters – whether I’m writing first, second or third person, it’s the character that’s telling their story, not me. My most recent novel is written from the point of view of a woman at various stages in her life and she has to sound authentic, to speak in her own voice – she can’t sound like a 35 year old Scottish man. We all have our ticks and habits, the kind of rhythms we like and they’ll always be there – it’s why you can recognise a David Peace novel in a few sentences, for example – but one of the main aims of the editing process is to remove the ego of the writer as much as possible from the story. David Mitchell is the master of this – his prose takes on the persona of his character so completely.

INTERVIEWER

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

MALONEY

My new novel, The Waves Burn Bright is out in May 2016 so we’re doing final proofreads just now, and I’ll be tinkering with the text until my publisher tells me to leave it alone. Most of the year will be devoted to promoting that. I’ve got a few ideas for my next novel but I’m not sure which one to pursue and I don’t want to jump into anything until I’m convinced it’s the right direction. I’ve got a poetry collection called Fractures coming out later in the year and I’m putting together a short story collection.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MALONEY

Not a good one.

INTERVIEWER

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

MALONEY

There are only two that are important: write every day and don’t be afraid of mistakes. We learn by trying, we learn by failing.

 

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with Russ Litten

Litten

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series,  we’re thrilled to introduce acclaimed writer, Russ Litten.

Litten is the author of “Scream If You Want To Go Faster”, “Swear Down” and “Kingdom”. His short stories have appeared in various international magazines and he has written for the screen and radio.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I am a 47 year-old man from a working class background who lives and works in Kingston-Upon-Hull and entertains himself with fairly simple pleasures; walking the dog, going to football, sitting in the pub talking bollocks.  In between all of this I sit down and write. For the last five years I’ve been a writer in residence at a prison, but the funding got pulled in May when the current set of psychopaths got into government. So my lifestyle currently involves balancing the need to make money with the need to make time to write.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I’ve always written and that’s the thing closest to me, but for years I was in a band. I played bass and wrote lyrics. I think this period was the closest I’ve come to achieving transcendence through the act of creation, but of course it’s a shared experience, and sooner or later you’ve got to push your own boat out. So music is my significant other passion. I still play bass guitar to amuse myself. I’d give anything to be able to sing though. That must be amazing, to be able to entrance a room with your voice, rather than clear it in seconds.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

LITTEN

As far as the writing goes, everyone and everything on the face of the planet and beyond, human beings especially. If you’re talking about heroes or influences on life in general these change from year to year, but the hard-core influences remain: Muhammad Ali, Quentin Crisp, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ, Chief Sitting Bull, Charles Bukowski, Kevin Rowland, Billy Whitehurst, Lillian Bilocca and Eddie Smith. Anyone who had a go, basically.

INTERVIEWER

Your 2010 novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, is rooted so firmly in the location and geography of your home city of Kingston upon Hull. What role does region and notions of ‘home’ play in your writing?

LITTEN

I was living in London when I started writing that first book. At the time, Hull had come bottom of some bullshit marketing gimmick “worst places to live” table. When I moved back up, Hackney took the bottom slot. So I’m obviously the kiss of death to any place I’ve previously lived. Except for Prague, hopefully. But generally, when considering notions of home and belonging, I refer to that Captain Beefheart song, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”.

INTERVIEWER

Your subsequent novel, Swear Down, has been described as “a postmodern triumph” – when you are writing, do you consciously attempt to create something that is ‘post modern’? Where does your focus, as a writer, lie when writing?

LITTEN

I certainly don’t set out to write post-modern stuff because I don’t particularly like post-modernism that much. I find it a bit tiresome and unhelpful. I like sincerity and stuff that’s from the heart. The focus for me when writing is purely to get the story down in as simple and as evocative a manner as possible. If that involves adopting a specific voice then I like that voice to be as authentic. I like Kerouac’s definition of literature as “a tale that’s told for companionship”.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any specific themes you’re interested in exploring as a writer?

LITTEN

I would very much like to write a love story. In fact, that’s what I’m doing next. A proper full-on exploration of love, in all its glorious fucked up wonder. Other than that, I like to start a story from an initial spark of intrigue and wander about within it until I find the thing that’s bothering me. It’s generally an abstract human emotion, like desire or jealousy or loyalty or grief, and out of that emerges the theme.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write?

LITTEN

Because if I don’t I get unwell. I realised this a long time ago. I write to get it all out of my head and put down somewhere safe where it can’t bother me anymore.

INTERVIEWER

In his work, The Psychology of Writing, Ronald T Kellogg explored the role of the daily writing routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity. Sometimes these are pretty specific. Virginia Woolf, for instance, spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. Do you have a specific daily writing routine? If so, what is it?

LITTEN

I do have a preferred writing routine, which is to get up, go for a run around the park, come back and start typing at around seven am. This is a summertime routine though. In winter, I usually avoid the running part. Generally, the earlier I start the better writing day I have. I like to write to music as well, instrumental stuff mainly, ambient or classical. I don’t like music with human voices when I’m writing unless it’s a language I can’t understand. I used to have this routine where I had to listen to Ralph Vaughan William’s “The Lark Ascending” in its entirety before I could type a sentence. But you have to be careful with routines; they can become crutches, which are a bit unhealthy.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing fiction, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

LITTEN

That you’re probably going to change everything, so it absolutely doesn’t matter. Just enjoy yourself. It’s the best bit, the first draft. It’s like spewing up and then immediately feeling better.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in literature, what are your thoughts and feelings on the publishing industry as a whole? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the ‘scene’?

LITTEN

I think it’s fair to say that the cramped financial restrictions on mainstream publishing means that it’s become a lot more safe and cautious, less experimental or willing to take risks. As a result, the books they push tend to be a bit dull and samey. Everyone seems to be frantically copying each other in the hope of emulating commercial success, hence the plethora of books about birds and grief, or girls in a variety of locations. Most of the interesting stuff comes from the small presses and the underground. As for aspiring writers, I’m not sure I’m well qualified to offer any hints or tips outside of the obvious stuff – write from the heart, don’t try and chase the obvious trends and find the thing you really want to say. Sooner or later some else will notice.

INTERVIEWER

Within this scene, is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

LITTEN

Not really, no. I try and ignore trends or any attempt to ride the zeitgeist. I suppose self-publishing will become more and more popular as a way of avoiding the traditional gate-keepers and I think that can only be a good thing.

INTERVIEWER

How is the digital age impacting writers?

LITTEN

As soon as you can reproduce anything digitally it is worthless. You now have a generation that don’t realise you should actually pay for music. An artist now has to identify the people who are into what they do and hope that they feel enough passion and loyalty to part with some money in exchange for a physical thing. In a more practical sense, the digital platforms enable a writer to get a story or book or whatever straight to an audience pretty quickly.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

LITTEN

I really don’t know. I think the temptation of the last few years has to be sensationalist or extreme or brutal. I’m a bit bored of all that to be honest. Twitter is a good example of this, where people often feel the need to be endlessly sarcastic or cutting or witty. To me, it feels like one big public audition for people who want to be the next Charlie Brooker. It’s back to that post-modern thing, the endless self-conscious wink of the eye.  The best way to stand out is to be truly yourself.  Which is a task in itself.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

LITTEN

Not really, no. I write initially to amuse or engage myself and if anyone else recognises something of worth in there, then that’s ace. Writing to a specific audience would only end in disaster for all concerned.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

LITTEN

It’s a spiritual thing, and it involves breathing from within. Opening your head up like a radio receiver. It doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. It used to amaze me when I was in a band, having four or five of you in a room hitting bits of metal and wood and then all of a sudden there’s something there that did not exist five minutes previously. Swop guitars and drums for a typewriter and the effect is much the same.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

LITTEN

Someone who writes things down, regardless of whether it gets read by anyone else or not.  A recorder, an observer, one who scratches marks in the mud for posterity and kicks.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

LITTEN

I would identify that “other” as the subconscious. If you write often then your subconscious mind tends to bubble to the surface and you become less elf-conscious. I think that’s a vital part of finding your own writing voice; letting go of conscious hang-ups and telling the truth as you perceive it.

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

I’m writing a love story and a non-fiction book about prison. I’ve also got a collection of monologues in the pipeline and a longer animation project for kids that I’m tackling next year.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LITTEN

Probably not, no. Oh, hang on …

INTERVIEWER

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

LITTEN

  1. Turn off the internet
  2. A long walk throws up many answers.
  3. Most TV isn’t worth watching
  4. Listen to The Beatles
  5. Don’t measure your success against others
  6. Pull down the blinds
  7. Try and finish everything you start
  8. Don’t worry
  9. Read stuff you don’t think you’d like
  10. Try and tell the truth unless the lie is more sincere

 

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with Eric Akoto

 

Erik Akoto

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce Eric Akoto, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Litro Magazine.

With a journalistic background, Eric has featured in various magazines, and contributed to various books. He also curates and comperes at festivals such as The Latitude Festival and the Hay Festival. His passions lie in progressive politics, freedom of expression, quality & independence in arts and journalism, social enterprise, secularism, good technology, and above all the power of fiction to connect and bring a level of empathy to different peoples.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos

AKOTO

There’s a long story and a short story. The short story of my background is that I was born in London and raised in South London, Battersea; I had a strict African upbringing. After leaving University, it was hoped I’d become a doctor or a Lawyer; but I had a creative spirit. Not knowing how to channel that creativity, I accidently landed a job as a male model – the job required a great deal of travelling. This was about 2000. Before the dawn of email and fast internet connectivity for sending large image files – so I would always be travelling, with an A-Z & my portfolio in hand. Spending hours on end on public transport – my sense of direction is terrible so I was always late – but I lasted for a good number of years and got to work with some amazing creative designers, photographers & magazine editors, which ironically lit a spark in me to get into magazine publishing. My first attempt at a creative publication was an e-zine called LA-NYLON (Los Angeles, New York & London) – I was about 25 and fortunate to have been offered the opportunity – through the modeling- to travel to some amazing cities. I wanted to create a platform where I was able to share what I was experiencing in these cities with friends.

Reading was always a passion and the time I spent travelling to and from interviews was always spent reading a book, magazine whatever I could get my hands on.

The long story starts in 2006, when I met a guy at the London Bookfair who was handing out a pamphlet – an A4 sheet folded in half – with short stories. I took one and on my ride home on the tube started reading it and thought to myself “this is a great idea I want my friends to see this”. I had a spider web of talented friends all doing different creative stuff, and so I began reaching out to them – for artwork, cartoons, stories, design – along with this guy in the space of a month or two we’d put together about a 20 page DL sized pamphlet. I took it to a local printer and printed a few thousand copies – and began distributing them myself.  It was a fun hobby and every couple of weeks I got these amazing creative friends together to help design, bounce ideas off each other and produce this pamphlet, which I then shared with them – and the rest of my community.  Before long a year or two passed and the guy from the bookfair went on to finish his PHD – and I’d fallen in love with publishing. I started taking the pamphlet to book shops – Foyles was one of the first book chains to support the magazine and after a few meetings with them they decided to sponsor the pamphlet – I managed to then convince Time to insert the pamphlet into one of its issues – to do this I had to increase the print run to 60,000 to meet it’s print run and at the same time decided to hold more stories and add more pages to the pamphlet turning it into a magazine and I haven’t looked back since.

My ethos has been shaped by the help given to me by the creative friends who supported me – it is being able to give a platform to emerging talent and Litro Magazine over the past 10 years has allowed me to do this.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

AKOTO

 I guess anyone who is “fair” to people and know that despite a “general” direction there is always another way.  Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, Tony Benn, Ta-Nehisi, and my daughter.

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?

AKOTO

The future of literature and writing, to me has to be one of growth and diversity (diversity not in the populous term that’s now coined as a catch all for inclusion of Black and ethnic minority in the publishing industry (being a minority, Black and Male in a very white industry I find the term a little condescending) – but the diversity in the industry to embrace all talented writers through to editors, publishers; whether they be Black, Female, Transgender, Gay whatever and not to be diverse because it’s trendy. A great writer will be enjoyed and appreciated by all and not just the few.

In order to not loose the many talented emerging writers by the wayside – from the top-down of the literary industry – it must reflect today’s society.

For a long time the dialogue around the future of publishing has been one of death –  its true many publications have either transitioned to the web or given a greater focus on the web; but what the web has done for publishing is to kill off the kind of print that provides distractions of the ’10-minute-read-before-you-bin’ variety. In turn, this has cleared the way for titles that are fascinating, made with passion, collectables.

Print does a great deal that the web can’t and vice versa – there will always be the need for a tangible, haptic experiences. Ultimately, nothing can replace the smell of a printed material. Even if the web / new technologies being developed cause a shift in the regularity of the reading experience.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a Literary Magazine should be for? Why are they important?

AKOTO

The sad truth is that literature or literary magazines does not reach a wide enough audience; yet alone have any chance of competing against other entertainment options – Binge TV watching, movies, journalism and non-fiction. More people will camp outside an Apple store for the launch of a new iPhone than they would for the lunch of a new literary magazine or a book. If the competition was a boxing match, there would be an inquest as to why the referee allowed the match to start in the first place.

It’s important for a literary magazine – on surviving its daily pounding from other entertainment options, it’s struggles with lack of funding – to produce a publication that does not just cater to writers but for the general reader – a platform for writers to write, emerging voices to be heard, but importantly a place for it’s contributors to develop a place to be heard for their particular beliefs or aims that they feel will better society and move culture in a positive direction.

Contributors to literary magazine’s should not expect to be published because they have done the rounds and feel it’s their turn to be published; but instead should be contributing because they feel their voice / story has something to say. And it’s in the publishing of these contributors that makes a literary magazine important.

Litro Magazine, for instance, has a clear identity. We have always championed and provided a platform for emerging writers, whether through print, online, festival stages, our newly launched literary agency – Litro Represents – and through other opportunities.

But alongside this, we also publish contributors with arguments about the current cultural dialogue, and political landscape – through the monthly themes of Litro Magazine – we do this so we can encourage an attitude to writing that goes beyond just getting one’s name in print.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the publishing industry; with numerous magazines switching from print to online, and others starting out and continuing as purely digital platforms. How do you balance the two outlets of print and digital with Litro? What are the different challenges you face with each of these?

AKOTO

I’m an early adaptor and a big tech geek, but I also enjoy the tangible feel of the printed form. There’s nothing better than meeting a person for the first time having a passing conversation – and for that person to then send you a book he/she has read and feels you will enjoy!

The internet has certainly provided a massive opportunity for writers – and consumers; but I don’t see a fight between print and the internet (for one thing print would surely loose before the bell rang). Instead, I see a nice challenge – how one can get the two to compliment each other. For instance, three years ago we started our collective story telling on twitter the #litrostory; and the experiment has been a great way to reach a new audience and followers on social media and draw them to the magazine.

INTERVIEWER

The magazine and online platform both look to combine various different aspects of literature – and indeed, culture in general, through a medium of different forms; from stories to reviews and comment or feature pieces. Why do you think it is important to combine these mediums?

AKOTO

I started Litro to share stories with friends who not only have differing practices but also differing interests – and I’d like to think of Litro Magazine’s readers as the same.

INTERVIEWER

Literature, and ultimately all art, is about communication and expression. How does Litro fit within our cultural conversation? And how do we ensure the conversation carries on?

AKOTO

I’m sure many in the publishing industry see Litro Magazine as incomprehensible – considering the fact we don’t just cover literature, yet we still call ourselves a literary magazine. The great thing about Litro being a small magazine compared to our larger, older contemporaries – who have greater access to funding and trusts set up – is that we are able to address topics and questions more openly.

The classical musician Bach was dismissed by his peers, who thought his music was incomprehensible. Employed by a church to play the organ, he was rebuked as having  “many curious variations in the chorale, and for having mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the congregation has been confused by it”.

With Litro we provide a platform for the unheard, the experimental – and at times unpopular.

For literature and all art, we need to ensure the conversation continues to flow – so all of us – especially those in a position to help support the arts – must not be afraid to experiment and take chances.

INTERVIEWER

David Foster Wallace once opined that it was “getting harder and harder to sit quietly by yourself and think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds”. Do you believe that the ‘instant gratification’ culture of iPods, televisions in car back seats and constant information on our smartphones is having an impact on us as readers? How can the publishing industry counter this? How do we engage our readers effectively?

AKOTO

Our reading habits as a whole has been impacted by the rise of the use of smartphones and other hand held devices. Developments in technology moves so fast that I guess an ‘iPod’ now belongs in a museum.

Whether the change in our collective thirst for instant gratification needs countering – on the one hand yes, but the book as a product and the way it is consumed – has had to change to keep with the times, in the same way music consumption changed from a product packaged on a TDK cassette tape, on vinyl, or a CD, to a file on a smartphone or iPod.

But will book reading actually suffer – and its consumption need more engaging?

I doubt it. My daughter – who at just 11 has more handheld devices than I have, with Kindles, iPhones…you name it! –  But recently she not only re-introduced me to one of Kipling’s poems – but also to a poem by Jacqueline Woodson, New York from her collection Brown Girl Dreaming – a book I ordered on Amazon.

The new era of books may actually see more authors, more reading, and more books being bought and sold.

 INTERVIEWER

Could you name your top five writers – and explain why they impress you?

AKOTO

I am impressed and engaged by so many writers it’s far too difficult to limit to just five.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

AKOTO

For me, creativity is passion, and wanting to unleash something you feel you need to share, beyond your immediate surroundings and not having the fear of ridicule stop you from doing so. Ultimately, creativity is the need to create something new, which is very hard to do.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

AKOTO

I stopped watching the Television a while ago – which has been a great help, I like to run in my local park – I’m fortunate to live not too far from Hyde Park, which has a lot of green open space.

INTERVIEWER

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

AKOTO

Read, Read, Read, Read and Read some more – even it’s just a menu at a restaurant, a random magazine you pick up whilst travelling – you never know where your inspiration might come from. It’s also good to have a complete knowledge and understanding of whatever it is you end up writing.

Creatives in profile: Interview with Asher Jay

A48T2076

Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can illuminate the path ahead.

Because of this, Nothing in the Rulebook has been founded to emphasise such creativity. Yet we’re also here to highlight not just works of creativity; but the creative individuals who write our stories; take our photographs; create our artworks.

Our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series offers creatives the opportunity to discuss their life and art at length. And it is an honour to introduce our latest detailed interview – with artist, writer, National Geographic Explorer and creative conservationist, Asher Jay.

Asher Jay

In the last 40 years, the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. Of course, hearing such figures one often echoes the sentiment ‘something must be done’. But what is that something? And who must do it?

Asher Jay believes that something is creativity – and is using her artistic inclinations to save the world’s threatened wildlife. Her cause-driven art, sculpture, design installations, films, writing, and advocacy advertising campaigns bring attention to everything from oil spills and dolphin slaughters to shrinking lion populations. “The unique power of art is that it can transcend differences, connect with people on a visceral level, and compel action,” she says.

'Blood Ivory'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Blood Ivory’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

Much of her best-known work spotlights the illegal ivory trade. In 2013 the grassroots group, March for Elephants, asked Jay to visualize the blood ivory story on a huge animated billboard in New York’s Times Square. Viewed by 1.5 million people, the internationally crowd-funded initiative aimed to provoke public pressure for revising laws that permit ivory to be imported, traded, and sold. “Conservation can no longer afford to be marginalized,” she asserts. “Today, we need everyone’s involvement, not just core conservationists.

She participated in the Faberge Big Egg Hunt in New York, where her oval oeuvre went on to raise money for anti-poaching efforts in Amboseli. Her upcoming projects will tackle biodiversity loss during the Anthropocene and expose threats to the world’s most traded and endangered mega fauna.

Nothing in the Rulebook is privileged to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

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

JAY

It’s weird to admit, you don’t belong to a place, that you feel connected to all life on earth all the time, that you can be born somewhere and not have it define you in anyway, that you can be raised by the world at large, where every place, person, action and thought has come to undo you from the boxes that society tries to bind you within… but that is my story. My dad used to say, it wasn’t hard to parent me, because all it took to raise me was sunshine, water and dirt, but my mom maintains I was raised by wolves… perhaps that had something to do with my walking on all fours with my first sibling, a fluffy white Spitz by the name of Leander. I ascended the evolutionary tree over the course of my childhood, from T-Rex, to bat, to chimp. My family never told me otherwise, so I had the freedom to be, to breathe, without boundaries. It wasn’t until my Kindergarten teacher told me that I couldn’t bond with my classmates by grooming them, that I first realized I was human. That was incredibly disappointing to learn, but my mom was quick to assure me, that I could be chimp or bat whenever I felt like it, that the wild was where I came from, much like everyone else, but that most others had lost this ability to recall and relive their animal ancestry. I was encouraged to let the wild within extend into the wild beyond. However, for those who care about geographical locations, I was born in India, and I owe who I am, to several countries in Europe, to family, friends, and a horse named Chester in the UK, to Africa’s unbridled wilderness and an aggressive love affair with the filthy yet fabulous New York City.

INTERVIEWER

You once said, “Channel your inner mosquito.” Can you explain to our readers what exactly this means? What is special about a mosquito? What can we learn from mosquitos?

JAY

A mosquito has impact with every bite, just as we have impact with every breath.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity – art and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

JAY

My first love is life. I love everything that life brings into focus, its dynamic range, vibrant spectrum of colors, light, shadow, balance, and depth… It sounds like I am speaking about my Canon equipment doesn’t it? Well, we hear often enough that life is what you make it, but I will qualify that by saying, life is what you bring your attention toward during the moment at hand. So I suppose life and cameras have something in common, they both require us to peer through a viewfinder and make the most of what the world has to offer in a given sliver of time and space. Look around you though, everything is life, there is nothing on this planet untouched by it. So I love life; I love all life on earth, I love my life! I get to be up in the air in a refurbished Gypsy Moth doing a loop-the-loop in Bedford one day, and swimming with Whale Sharks off the coast of Cabos the next, so my passion for life is as unbound as life itself. I also love life no matter the form it has found expression in, because we are all the same when we breathe, when we allow ourselves to just be.

'Global Conversations'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Global Conversations’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you?

JAY

Art inspires me, I often head to museums to look at creative expression from past to present, before I commit to a canvas of my own. I have a very visceral connection to visual media, in fact I have never met a painting I have liked that I have not wanted to lick… but the colors seldom taste as delicious as they look, which is unfortunate. This is why I enjoy cooking, food is rich in color and texture, and unlike most paint, and when organically produced, it is not toxic. Since I use my creativity to communicate urgent ecological concerns of our time, I am also inspired by the bold and borderless from the field, people who display extraordinary courage of conviction, and passion for life. Luckily, I encounter most of these individuals in person at our Mothership – the National Geographic Society- role models like Emmanuel De Merode, the former director of Virunga National Park, or Explorer in Residence, Lee Berger, a highly intuitive, yoda-esque, paleoanthropologist who has been an extraordinary source of wisdom and guidance for me. I am grateful for all the input I receive, without which I would have no output.

INTEVIEWER

Who outside of your field inspires you and why?

JAY

Every one I encounter inspires me in different ways, and it’s hard to discern where my field ends and someone doing something else begins, but I suppose I could stop being abstruse and arduous and admit to being inspired by every single contestant on Cupcake Wars. It combines my need for sugar with spontaneous ingenuity. On a side note – Nacho Duato (Ballet Choreographer), Paul Klee (artist), Alexander McQueen and Cristobal Balenciaga (Couturiers).

INTERVIEWER

Who has been the biggest source of inspiration throughout your career?

JAY

 Wildlife, they don’t let me down like many of my role models have. (#TheDarkerSideofAsherJay haha)

INTERVIEWER

The work you do inspiring conservation tackles everything from the illegal ivory trade to overfishing in the Mediterranean. What drives you? And how do you manage multiple, different creative projects?

JAY

I am driven by caffeine each morning, but I guess the secret ingredients to my lifestyle are passion, love and happiness. It’s like, with the wild, I found my soul mate, the love of my life, now wouldn’t you do everything in your power to protect, nurture and give to the “one?” All my emotional states orbit wild, and I have fallen hard for its beauty, complexity and diversity. Wild keeps me tethered to the present tense; it’s Deepak Chopra unabridged. With the wild, all the human white noise of projecting for a future that hasn’t happened yet, and worrying about a past that is by gone fades away. It’s refreshing to just be, it is incredibly liberating. I love wild, because it has helped me understand the value of now, for now is all I need to contribute. I stay present, informed and open, and I say yes to life and flow with the go. All of it rather effortless, like my mom always says, “If you feel like you are working hard, then you are doing something wrong.” Managing multiple projects is easy when you are bursting with ideas, love what you do, and are caffeinated or on a sugar high in regular intervals.

It’s a privilege to be able to do what I do. I get to dive, I get to hangout with lions, travel extensively, innovate and collaborate with some of the most brilliant minds of the 21st century and fight for a collective wild future… so I am grateful every day, for all of it. It is really hard walking this path, I have immersive emotional meltdowns, eat my feelings on blue days, and I seem to have missed the memo on adulting, but as my generation says, Beyonce wasn’t made in a day. It’s just a lot of hard work, consistent action, self-integrity and self-belief.

INTERVIEWER

Both your artwork and your writing seems inherently tied in with your work as an activist. What do you make of creativity as protest? And where do you think it fits within some of the broader activist and protest movements currently at play throughout the world?

JAY

I know I often get cited as an art activist, but I am not entirely comfortable with that term. I think it is important to recognize the importance of art as a medium that can empower awareness and enable action but activism is ripe in negative connotations, as is protest. I don’t think we should be against something, because the minute we are, we give rise to an “us versus them” argument. I am not protesting the current paradigm, how can I when I live in it? I am a part of the problem, as much as I am a part of the solution. I have really begun to see that off late, what with my constant globe trotting to give talks and participate in field efforts; my carbon footprint is up the wazoo. I also occasionally do drink out of a plastic water bottles, life on the go encourages that sort of convenient consumerism, and I even catch myself eating things I have never eaten before, or feel morally against. Circumstances have a way of challenging what we hold to be true, but because I hold my self accountable, I don’t let myself off the hook when I misbehave. I am aware when I do something that isn’t congruous with what I say, and when I say something that isn’t in alignment with what I do. I really am striving to lead a life of reduced internal conflict, so I can enrich other’s lives holistically. I get it right sometimes and I fail on other occasions. I am still learning, but I think the greater solution lies in being inclusive.  So I think we need to evolve past using words that denote violence and separation, like “activism” and “protest” and embrace resolved states that embody peace and coexistence, and enter an era of higher consciousness that promotes “inclusivity” and “unity” so we can do right by the largest number of living beings on this planet. It is time we recognized that we are all on a Noah’s Ark, and we should inhabit the earth cooperatively and consciously.

'Every Soup Slays A Shark'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Every Soup Slays A Shark’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Since you’re involved with so many different causes, could you tell us a bit about how you choose the cause / the campaign? What are elements that you look for?

JAY

I don’t really choose causes, causes choose me. Caring about extinction, caring about pollution, caring about human trafficking, caring about women’s empowerment, is not a choice. For any compassionate, connected person, it is impossible not to feel compelled to contribute and be an instrument of change.

INTERVIEWER

Describe your process during the development of a campaign. Are you given a topic to focus on or do you choose what speaks to you? Do you travel to remote areas for research?

JAY

I have done all of the above to realize a campaign, however I try to put myself in the paws, hooves and fins of my true clients, the reason I got into this line of work.

INTERVIEWER

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose” – Mario Cuomo. It’s interesting to see how you move between literary forms in your writing – using a combination of poetry and prose. What does poetry mean to you?

JAY

Poetry, to me, is thought expressed in its raw and vulnerable form. It is sensual, sensory, and subjective, a medium you just dive in to and experience for yourself, rather like a work of art. A poem does not need to be figured out, it just needs to be consumed in its entirety, so it can reach you as only a poem can. Let your cerebral palate be tickled by the myriad flavors it sprinkles across your mind, heart and soul. I find poetry offers the unworked fragments of my subconscious freedom of articulation and like a decanter it helps my innermost workings find the space to breathe and be.

INTERVIEWER

Can writing right wrongs?

JAY

Any form of creativity can right wrongs and wrong rights, particularly when it deprives a being of the right to freedom, as is the case with some laws that deprive animals of their personhood based on humanity’s ability to calibrate intelligence. Writing is but a weapon, and it can be wielded just as easily to hurt, hinder and hold hostage, as it can be used to protect, permit and promote process.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

JAY

Defining the word, creativity, would limit its dimensions and scope.

Asher Jay Covered in Paint

Asher Jay Covered in Paint

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk us through your creative process? How long does it take you to finish a piece?

JAY

It varies as much as public opinion on climate change, but always seems to involve hard science, baggy sweatpants, middle of the night epiphanies, gallons of coffee, academic research polls conducted in my apartment on my roommate and her boyfriend, and random paint stained body parts and occasionally my floor but don’t tell my super.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

JAY

I think it’s important to listen to all the babble, to be tolerant, and give every expressed perspective an unbiased moment of your time. Then I mull it over, to see if the ideas or arguments presented make sense to me, if they feel ethically congruous and in the best interest of the marginalized, then I assimilate it, if not I bear it in mind and work on crafting a counter position based on scientific findings and hard numbers. I don’t make the mistake of assuming I know everything there is to know about anything, I remain receptive and willing to change my stance based on open, and rational dialogue.  I maintain my voice and unique creative stand on issues by being malleable and forthcoming about my confusions and concerns.

INTERVIEWER

Great pieces of art often inspire great pieces of writing and literature – and great pieces of writing often inspire the finest pieces of art. Do you think the two naturally complement one another? How do you find balancing your work as an artist, with your work as a writer?

JAY

I don’t communicate in words when I see in pictures and I don’t see in pictures when I communicate with words, on the rare occasion both come together, and that’s pretty engaging for me, it feels like all my neurons are having hot sex with one another and resulting in one cerebralgasm after another.

INTERVIEWER

It was interesting reading your recent post on Tenerife – especially the way you note how its tourist-fuelled economy is “brash, irreverent, myopic, materialistic, irresponsible [and] itinerant”! This is travel writing as protest, and it’s difficult not to ignore your call to arms when you insist on the “importance of saving marine habitats [because] we owe one out of two breaths to the world’s cerulean expanse”. How important, do you think, art and writing are in drawing attention to these issues, which, despite not getting much coverage in the media, nonetheless have the power to significantly affect us all – no matter where we live?

JAY

Art and writing can breathe new life into a hackneyed narrative arc, while keeping the grey areas alive. The human mind has a way of separating situations and individuals into good and evil, vilifying those who commit a “wrong” and pitting them against the crusaders who fight the good fight, but more often than not, issues are more complicated than that. There are more variables to address and it is seldom a ‘one off’ incident. Take Cecil the Lion, everyone got riled up about him, but in a week he will be old news. The Exxon Valdez spill is still a problem, the oil hasn’t gone away in all these years, the animals in that ecosystem have forever been impacted, and my friends tell me that you can still smell the gasoline beneath the shore side rocks. The same is true of the BP Maconda spill, and Haiti’s reconstruction efforts but we are quick to forget, because people just like being entertained by sensationalized stories, and enjoy the feel good factor of doing a quick call to action, and moving on to the next thing. The engagement seldom results in the culmination of a long haul solution.  We are all too distracted by the sheer volume of choices when it comes to causes and tragedies that we buy into them based on PR, not because they are a priority. Environmental degradation compromises our continued survival and health, it makes us vulnerable to the compounding impact of volatile externalities as a collective, but why think about that, when business as usual guarantees a pay-check that you can donate ten dollars from, toward a charity of your choice as you check out at your local health foods store? We are creatures of habit, and it is convenient to think, “we have been okay thus far, we’ll be okay going forward, technology will take care of the rest.”

INTERVIEWER

You mention the BP oil spill there, and have previously noted that it was absolutely pivotal in your career. Could you please explain why that’s the case?

JAY

It was the moment I realized, I had to participate more substantially, that signing petitions and recycling was simply not enough for me. It became apparent to me that this work is my calling.

'Hydrocarbon Hospice'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Hydrocarbon Hospice’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Or a specific audience/viewer in mind for your artwork?

JAY

I write what insights I have, I create what comes to me, and it reaches those it is meant to mobilize. I do strategize the channels of dissemination, discern the target demographic and determine the benchmarks of a campaign or op-ed before launching it, but creative expression has a larger impact on shaping cultural consciousness than we have ways to measure it.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

JAY

No. Gosh, it is hard enough being me; I doubt I have the time to manage an alter ego, besides I strive hard to resolve duality, reduce conflict within the self and live a more unified life. Encouraging oneness would get infinitely harder if I fracture myself, and by extension my voice. It all comes from the same place within me.

INTERVIEWER

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language // and next year’s words await another voice” – T.S. Eliot. There’s always a danger, when it comes to protest, activism and writing, that what we do becomes outdated – addressing last year’s problems using last year’s language. How do you keep your writing and artwork fresh? And what voice, do you think, we need for next year (and all the years afterwards)?

JAY

Trying to unite a modern world of ever-changing technological advances, social movements, fashion trends and a constantly distracting digital landscape with an irreplaceable and finite wild world keeps my art as fresh as the changing culture of society. Because people, communication and ideologies change, I must adapt my methods of reaching the masses in a way that will have an emotional impact on them and recruit them to a consciousness of compassion and concern for the larger picture, i.e., the wild world upon which our very existence depends. The voice of tomorrow will find expression when tomorrow becomes today. We need only take it a day at a time, and give it everything we have got. This day, this moment it includes everything that is, and everything that has ever existed, why isn’t that enough? Why can’t we do justice to all that exists now? Why can’t we make ‘now’ count?

INTERVIEWER

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

JAY

Launching a “Your Shot” assignment with National Geographic on September 7th, to build on the premise of my iStorm Faberge Egg from last year’s Big Egg Hunt. I will serve as editor and curate the content, picking out the best images from the submissions, but I will also be using the raw data/images to composite a larger story that will then be disseminated back to the public through an open source application. I have several other projects in the pipeline including an issue-artwork I created for Joel Harper’s All the Way to the Ocean children’s film and book, which will tour and sell in conjunction to Joel’s inspired efforts to raise youth awareness. Also finishing up a project called Beyond the Frame in Focus, which relies on multimedia to tell stories that are multidimensional. I shot a series of photographs while I was in the Serengeti last year, and while each image I clicked is a complete composition of a single moment, it is also incomplete as it excludes everything the lens isn’t able to bring into focus in that moment — the larger story. Through my ability to conceptually integrate various ideas into a single layout through paint, graphics, collage and collating scientific data/field information, I have seen begun creating works that go beyond the frame in focus. The questions I am looking to answer: What is not being told by the image captured? What else can I be bringing to light in that moment? I have also been incorporating notes from the field, and coining innovative ways to fold data into the layouts. The final works are highly textural, rich and uniquely different from any other project done thus far on African wildlife.  I presented two pieces from this series at the National Geographic Explorer Symposium this year.

'Up In Smoke'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Up In Smoke’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

And what about the future in general? Where are global trends and issues taking the world (and humanity along with it)?

JAY

The future isn’t here yet, lets do right by the present first. We don’t have the bandwidth to assess what our future will be like, bleak or bright, what we can do is take responsibility for the moment at hand, and do better than we have in moments past.

We are living in a world that no one wants to be a part of; everyone is desperate to escape it, one way or another, through emotional opiates, indulging experiences or by constantly awaiting what comes next. No one wants to be present, it’s far too boring in the digital age to be contained by the reality of your present tense, so everyone finds ways to leave or lose “now.”

INTERVIEWER

Creative types and writers have always been imagining the future – Brave New World and 1984 immediately spring to mind. What role do you think writing and art play in the way we think about ‘the world of tomorrow’?

JAY

It can imbue us with hope and fuel our imagination, as such oracular writing and art often does, but we should not confuse fiction with reality. Yes we are capable of modelling for a future based on hard facts and figures, especially when we have certain controls in place. We make specific assumptions as our foundation, upon which we build the model, but time and again we have failed to be cognizant of the fact that we are limited, and as such incapable of comprehending the complexity of compounding consequences. It doesn’t stop us from trying, but life and nature has a rewarding way of putting us back in our place, and giving us the freedom of acceptance that comes from surrender.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say you’re in the utopian or dystopian school of thought?

JAY

Neither. I don’t think projecting for a future that hasn’t happened yet has ever prepared us for how things have actually unfolded at any given point in our collective history. I try to anchor myself in the realities of our world without impressing my interpretations upon them, which at times is extremely hard, but deep down I recognize that things are the way they are and choosing to reject, accept, hope for a better tomorrow or surrender to a post-apocalyptic future, will not make this instant any different than it is. You see, how I perceive any aspect of reality only changes that aspect for me, not for others, so in truth, all that my perceptions, ideologies, aspirations and beliefs do, is isolate me from the rest of humanity and life, which honestly accomplishes nothing. It’s hard to be in an objective, unified place continually though, but I guess that is at the crux of the human condition.

INTERVIEWER

Say you met your future self (say from the year 2030) – what one question would you ask?

JAY

Are you present?

INTERVIEWER

If everything that was wrong with the world was righted, what would you write about? What art would you make?

JAY

If the things I write about and create art about get resolved, I will probably stop doing what I do now. I will adapt and find new purpose, because life will show me what the world needs from me at that juncture, or better yet I’d move to Africa and live in the bush wild with the elephants, lions and rock hyraxes I care so deeply for. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling way to spend my time if all this conflict gets effectively addressed by tomorrow.

'When The Blind See'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘When The Blind See’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

And finally, could you write us a story in 6 words?

JAY

Lion slumber party? Lived through it!