Creatives in profile: interview with Katie Arnstein

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Katie Arnstein is an actor, writer and musician from the Midlands. Her two solo shows have both won Show of the Week at VAULT Festival, with her most recent show, Sexy Lamp winning The Pick of Pleasance Award.

Sexy Lamp is a show inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, which determines if a female character is relevant to the plot of an artistic work or merely decoration. If a female role could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. In the era of the #MeToo movement, it is in many way a defining show of our times (and, as such, we – along with many others – have been raving about it in our reviews).

Ahead of a summer touring Sexy Lamp, which includes a run through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it was a genuine pleasure to catch-up with Arnstein and talk about her show and everything else besides (including her constant fear of frogs).

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

ARNSTEIN

My name is Katie Arnstein, I am a 28 year old actor, writer and musician originally from the Midlands. I am the daughter of  two now-retired teachers, Jane and Tim, and I have two sisters, Grace and Lil. I’m a vegan but am fun in other ways.

INTERVIEWER

In your latest play, Sexy Lamp, you speak about how your love of acting can be traced back to watching Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Has acting always been your first love, and what have been some of the defining moments that have brought you on your journey so far?

ARNSTEIN

I am told that when I was very young I wanted to be a face painter but after seeing the Wizard of Oz I wanted to be Dorothy. I loved acting but didn’t know how to do it as a job until I met the careers advisor at school who said “You can train to be an actor, you know?” and I was like “AWESOME. How?”. I got in to a regional drama school and moved to London in 2012 to begin my glittering career*

*career decidedly not glittery.

INTERVIEWER

Apart from acting, what else are you particularly passionate about?

ARNSTEIN

Equal rights, large cups of tea and Bruce Springsteen.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ARNSTEIN

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jess Phillips, Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm, my sisters and my oldest friend Laura Higgs.

 INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists and actors today?

ARNSTEIN

How hard it is financially. How hard it is getting your foot in the door. The lack of diversity within the arts.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your journey in putting together your show, Sexy Lamp? Why do you feel it’s been important to put this show on now, and could you have put it on to the same effect when you first arrived in London, in 2012?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp is the second solo show I have written. It follows Bicycles and Fish, which I have been touring on and off since 2017. I wrote Sexy Lamp in December, 2018 up until the day of the first show on the 6th of February 2019. I had surgery at the start of December so spent the month sitting down and trying to write. I wrote the opening song and a number of real life accounts of my experiences and then tried to piece them together. It was like a nightmare jigsaw puzzle.

There is absolutely no way I could have put the show on in 2012, I didn’t believe I could write until 2016. In 2012 I was waiting for the call from the National Theatre or Spielberg. Reader, that call never came.

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The ‘Sexy Lamp Test’: if a female character could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

INTERVIEWER

In the 1980s, there seemed to be a move within the acting industry towards putting strong, female characters front and centre of stories – think Thelma and Louise, or Alien, for instance. So it’s not unsurprising when many people voice incredulity, really, that we still haven’t moved on much from then, in many ways – and there are still far too many films and theatre productions that don’t pass either the Bechtel Test or the Sexy Lamp test. Why is that, do you think? And what can be done about it?

ARNSTEIN

We need more female voices in every area of the industry; but particularly when it comes to making the decisions of what gets made. We also need to vote with our time and money. We need to seek out and support female and non-binary work. It has been a boys club for the whole time. Thelma and Louise and Alien are exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to films. I hope to see a change and have every film or show pass these incredibly simple tests addressing gender balance.

INTERVIEWER

Writers often speak of having certain habits or processes they follow strictly when writing their first, second and subsequent drafts. Are there any strict rules or rituals you stick to when crafting your shows?

ARNSTEIN

I try and do youtube Yoga with Adriene in the morning. I always start the day with a big cup of tea and breakfast. When the show is coming up I sleep with the script under my pillow and I always have a notebook and pen with me. My friend Dan Goldman will hear the script throughout its many drafts and note it for me. Also, for Sexy Lamp, the wonderful Ellen Havard directed and was key in creating the show as it is now. I always buy a Big Issue on the day of the show. My process also includes huge panic and crying. I am trying to work on this…

INTERVIEWER

Your shows blend performance and almost memoir-like driven narrative with music and song. How do you see the relationship between the various different artistic aspects of your show? Do you prefer writing song lyrics to a script, or vice versa?

ARNSTEIN

I began writing songs when I was 21 and only thought about writing dialog when I entered a scratch night at Redbridge drama centre at the end of 2016. It takes me a while to get a song I like the sound of; but once I get there I can write a song in about an hour, it is just a bit hit and miss until then. The script took longer but I am trying to keep practicing.

INTERVIEWER

Why the ukulele, and what are your biggest musical influences?

ARNSTEIN

My Dad bought me my use for my 21st birthday. I was leaving drama school and wanted to start writing songs and can’t play the piano well enough so the ukulele was a brilliant gift. It’s portable and easy to get started on.

Influences wise, I have my dad’s taste in music. I am particularly interested in great lyricists, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, etc. The Kinks are a very important band to me as they make the everyday appear magic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write or act?

ARNSTEIN

I imagine I’m talking to friends which might sound cringe but I hope not. I try to write in a conversational, accessible and gentle way. I want it to feel like you have sat down with a pal you haven’t seen in a while and you’re just catching up. I also try a write a couple of jokes that my parents will like and a couple that my friends will like, then build it up from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as an actor and writer?

ARNSTEIN

I feel I have a responsibility to be truthful and raise awareness of issues surrounding sexism and the everyday struggles that women are faced with. I hope I contribute to the conversation.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, is the sexiest type of lamp or lighting?

ARNSTEIN

Since showing Sexy Lamp at VAULT festival I have had many images of sexy lamps and lighting sent to me. It is an unexpected perk and it has OPENED MY EYES I can tell you.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your creative projects?

ARNSTEIN

I have a few more shows of Sexy Lamp and my first show Bicycles and Fish before taking Sexy Lamp to the Pleasance this summer for the Edinburgh Festival. I will start writing a third show I think, although every time I begin it is such a scary feeling I am putting it off. I am also looking to collaborate with other people and theatre companies to keep learning and developing.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

  1. Write a to do list everyday with clear achievable goals.
  2. Be brave.
  3. Believe you can do it.
  4. Get a small and brilliant team around you to help you.
  5. Keep a notebook with you at all times.
  6. Find your individuality and that will be your strength.
  7. See as much as you can.
  8. Be kind. (It is not necessary but it helps)

Quick fire round!

 INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ARNSTEIN

I have just had my mind blown by Normal People and Conversations With Friends, both by Sally Rooney.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARNSTEIN

I suppose critically acclaimed? But then I’ve seen The Room about 20 times.. so I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

I have followed a woman called Karima Francis for over 13 years and I think she is wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

 I think R Kelly is still being played and we need to shut that right down.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ARNSTEIN

Anna Seward, she was a writer, poet, botanist and feminist from my home town of Lichfield and even though we have many statues of men there is nothing that celebrates her.

INTERVIEWER

If the acting industry didn’t exist – what would you do?

ARNSTEIN

I would like to enter pub quizzes for money and see if it could sustain me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARNSTEIN

Me and my brilliant pal Simon just did American Boy at karaoke and it was wicked. I don’t know if that counts.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ARNSTEIN

When I was at primary school I had my dress tucked into my pants when I was taking the register out to the office and my teacher got the whole class to tell me in unison. It was a harsh move from them.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp won the Pleasance Pick of Vault Festival and that is remarkable. I am proud of my sisters, Grace and Lil everyday.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ARNSTEIN

Don’t worry so much, please. AND DON’T WEAR STILETTOS FOR SCHOOL WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARNSTEIN

She dreamt it then did it.

Check out Sexy Lamp for yourselves

Follow Katie Arnstein on Twitter @KatieArnstein and on Instagram (also @KatieArnstein). Ahead of her run at the Pleasance Baby Grand Theatre in Edinburgh for the whole of the Fringe Festival, you can catch her at one of her upcoming shows (information on which is available through Arnstein’s website).

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Books for the future: Man Booker prize winning novelist Han Kang donates manuscript to the ‘Future Library’ project

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The Nordmanka forest, outside Oslo, where the trees of the Future Library are growing. Photo by  Kristin von Hirsch

In a forest just outside Oslo, one thousand trees have been planted to supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

This is part of the ground-breaking Future Library project – and each year, everyone is welcome to join in and participate in a handover ceremony with that year’s author.

The Man Booker International prize winning South Korean novelist Han Kang is the author contributing a manuscript for the Future Library project in 2019. She will hand over her writing on Saturday, 25th May in an intimate ceremony within the Nordmarka Forest, Oslo. Visitors can join Han Kang walking through the trees to a clearing filled with one thousand four-year-old spruce saplings: the Future Library forest.

Future Library is a public artwork by Scottish artist Katie Paterson that will unfold over a century in the city of Oslo, Norway. Han Kang is the fifth writer to participate in Future Library. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood was the first author to contribute, followed by British novelist David Mitchell, Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón, and Turkish author Elif Shafak.

An unknown future

Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hope of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Following the forest ceremony, Han Kang will give a public talk at the Deichmanske Library, Oslo. Speaking ahead of the ceremony, Kang said:

“I can’t survive one hundred years from now, of course. No-one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Ultimately Future Library deals with the fate of paper books. I would like to pray for the fates of both humans and books. May they survive and embrace each other, in and after one hundred years, even though they couldn’t reach eternity…”

No more “fast food thinking”

Anne Beate Hovind, the curator of the Future Library project, spoke to Nothing in the Rulebook about the ethos behind the artwork:

“Projects like this are so important for our time. Just a couple of generations back, people were thinking this way all the time. You know, you build something or plant a forest, you don’t do it for your sake – you do it for future generations.

We kind of have this fast food thinking and now we have to prepare something for the next generation. I think more people realise the world is a little lost and we need to get back on track.”

Safe storage

All one hundred manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in the new Oslo Public Library opening in 2020. Intended to be a space of contemplation, this room – designed by the Katie Paterson alongside a team of architects – will be lined with wood from the Nordmarka forest. The authors’ names and titles of their works will be on display, but none of the manuscripts will be available for reading until their publication in one century’s time. No adult living now will ever know what is inside the boxes, other than that they are texts of some kind that will withstand the ravages of time and be  available in the year 2114.

The research is clear: we need to put down our phones and pick up our pens (and our books)

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With 66% of us claiming we don’t have time to read because we’re distracted by our phones, why not put them down and find distractions in the world of books?

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity,” so opined Henry Beston in what is a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology.

Beston was writing in the late 1940s; but his remarks about our relationship with technology – and the potential pitfalls between our ever-closer relationship with it – are perhaps more pertinent today than ever before, especially as new research is published showing the vast majority of us claim to be distracted by near-constant, often idle, scrolling on our Smartphone devices.

This isn’t to advocate the luddites, but simply to draw attention to a remarkable trend that has been emerging in recent years as the use of mobile technology has proliferated among our society. Indeed, since 2012, when for the first time over half of all US citizens owned a smartphone, there has been a rapid change in not only our technological usage, but even in our characteristics as individuals and as a society. A new generational divide has even been seen to open up, as Jean Twenge points out in their work, iGen, which sees the generation born after millennials as being increasingly dependent upon their smartphones – using them to derive pleasure, to communicate with one another, form and maintain relationships, even while use of these devices is linked to poorer mental health and increased feelings of loneliness and decreased productivity.

Few, perhaps, will be surprised by findings that suggest our reliance on smartphone technology has come at a cost. As Rebecca Solnit notes in this wonderful analysis, “Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.”

Indeed, to build upon this, and to explore why increases in smartphone usage seem to be linked to feelings of loneliness and poor mental health, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

The impact of smartphones on creativity

So what does all this mean for aspiring and established creatives out there? Well, apart from ensuring we all do what we can to support ourselves and one another – looking out for signs of depression and doing what we can to protect our mental health and wellbeing (creative types, after all, may be more likely to experience mental health problems).

But it also means making a conscious effort to switch off our phones and minimise the distractions we face from them. Some of this has a simple reason behind it: with 66% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by their phones, and 31% of people saying they would read more if they weren’t distracted by streaming services like Netflix (source), and since we know that reading more and widely helps to improve our writing and creative abilities, switching off our phones and picking up a book would likely spur the creative juices needed to produce original pieces of work.

Indeed, this in part is just common sense. As the comedy writer Graham Linehan has said, in an interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

In fact, cutting ourselves off completely may be the only way to truly minimise the impact of modern technology. As a study by the University of Texas at Austin published recently in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found, a smartphone can sap attention even when it’s not being used, even if the phone is on silent — or even when powered off and tucked away in a purse, briefcase or backpack. Putting these distracting devices out of sight does not necessarily put them out of mind, in other words.

But perhaps there’s also something more here. A battle not between ourselves and our urges to distract ourselves from reality (perhaps an understandable impulse given our reality is currently catastrophic climate breakdown amid a geopolitical maelstrom of inaction and the rise of the far right); but rather a battle between society and the Tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg who make billions of dollars precisely from our distraction; and in turn a battle between us and the politicians whose interests it’s in to keep us distracted, to keep us disengaged with reality, because they know (and fear) the potential impact a suddenly creatively energised society could have upon the world.

The art of waiting

What this all ultimately comes down to, perhaps, is patience. The patience needed to work with feelings of boredom and frustration, rather than against them. The patience needed between conversations and meetings with friends to appreciate them all the more (and so much more than you can ever appreciate a simple snapchat streak). The patience needed to properly read a book and appreciate it, rather than simply scanning the pages as one might a smartphone webpage or app. As the brilliant novelist Tim Leach has written, “The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.”

Perhaps if we are able to put down our phones, the wait for the lightning that changes the system will be shorter than we think.

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Sean Leahy

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Named as one of the ’50 Funniest People on Twitter’, Sean Leahy has built quite the following on the Twittershphere as @thepunningman. Appearing on Buzzfeed, Comedy Central, The Poke, Huffington Post, Funny or Die and TimeOut (among others), he has recently published his debut children’s book, The Monster Cafe via award-winning publishers Unbound. 

Illustrated by Hungarian artist Mihály Orodán, The Monster Café is a humourous tale that deals with pre-conceptions, pre-school excitement and pre-tty big monsters.

INTERVIEWER

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

LEAHY

I’m 36, and I live just outside the gates of Hampton Court Palace with my wife and two children. I earn a crust as a Graphic Designer, and have done for the past 15 years.

INTERVIEWER

Beyond writing and comedy, what are you passionate about?

LEAHY

Football, punk rock and Guinness. The order is dictated by Tottenham Hotspur.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

LEAHY

Shepard Fairey (the mind behind Obey Giant), for taking something as raw as street art (despite my disliking that term) and punk and making a phenomenon out of it. And Jerry Seinfeld for doing the same with comedy.

INTERVIEWER

Was it always your intention to wind up writing jokes for a living?

LEAHY

Well, it’s not a living yet. I had a real interest in jokes, wordplay and the structure of comedy from a young age, and I had a real interest in ‘making’, be it art, design, writing, film, whatever, in order to get through the working day, rather than doing something I had no interest in.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve published The Monster Café, through Unbound books. Can you tell us a little about where the idea for the book first sprang, and how it evolved?

LEAHY

Having two children means I’ve sat through several kids books, and while there are loads of utterly brilliant and beautiful ones, there are SO MANY that are just complete and utter dog eggs.

It’s trite to say “Christ, I could do better than that”, but I think I have, and hopefully the kids agree.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your experience of publishing with Unbound been like?

LEAHY

The’ve been amazing. The book simply wouldn’t exist had they not afforded me the opportunity. They’re really interesting, in that they crowdfund all of their books, which allows the authors total creative freedom.

As designers, both Mihaly (the illustrator) and I wanted to be able to lay the book out ourselves, and we were able to do that and make all the decisions about how it should look. Once the money was raised we delivered the finished book to them and they made sure it was just as we envisioned it.

It’s taken a while, but we’re really pleased with it.

INTERVIEWER

It seems old hat to say it in some ways, but generally speaking the ‘mainstream’ publishing industry has been somewhat risk averse when it comes to championing and publishing new books that aren’t in someway “copies of novels that are themselves copies of previously successful novels”, as Julian Barnes once noted. What opportunities do you think Crowdfunding offers to aspiring writers with new, unique or otherwise quirky ideas?

LEAHY

It’s meant a lot. You just need to take a glance at a some of the books Unbound have published to see there’s a wealth of topics you don’t see on the shelves in Waterstones. Obviously they’re not only way to go about crowdfunding your book, but the fact they’re a publisher (and a respected one at that), means the buyers take them seriously too. They’re not just putting out any old rubbish, they consider each and every project that is submitted to them, but really champion those who don’t usually get given a voice in this industry.

INTERVIEWER

What makes a good crowdfunding project, in your opinion? And what should authors considering following this route themselves consider before starting their own campaign?

LEAHY

Make it stand out. You only need to scroll the length of one screen these days before you’re bashed over the head by someone asking for your money. Give them a valid reason to part with theirs, and make it colourful.

INTERVIEWER

Your creative partner in The Monster Café is Mihaly Orodan – could you tell us about your artistic partnership; how did you know Mihaly’s illustration style would complement your writing?

LEAHY

Mike (to his pals, and some enemies) and I worked together at a tiny creative agency just outside London. His main task was creating infographics and icons for super dry financial companies. But he also drew caricatures for all the birthdays and leaving cards. Once I saw what he was really capable of, I basically twisted his arm until he agreed to illustrate the book. He’s now has an agent and is working on his fourth book since mine.

His work is really incredible. To be able to put your full faith in someone to just ‘get’ what you want is quite rare, but that’s what I was able to do. I basically laid out the entire book with blank pages and small notes on what should be on each spread. I think I had three amends from the first draft he sent me. It was astonishing.

INTERVIEWER

You’re extremely active on Twitter – what role does social media have to play in the professional lives of artistic and established creatives? Is it an inevitable part of our world with which we must participate?

LEAHY

Twitter is the reason the book is here, make no mistake about it. I’ve been lucky enough to gain a decent following on there from writing jokes and little “micro-sketches”, and that audience has meant I had someone to sell the book to. Obviously friends and family make up a big part of who fund a project, but the fact there was an active group of people who enjoy my writing enough to subscribe to it meant I had more eyes to put the project in front of.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

How do you tell a good joke?

LEAHY

Start with the punchline and work backwards

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

LEAHY

I never get to go to the cinema any more, so definitely that.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

LEAHY

Both have value, but I’ll go cult.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated book/film?

LEAHY

The Red Dwarf novels

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated book/film?

LEAHY

On The Road – It’s SO short and I still couldn’t finish it.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

LEAHY

Jon Klassen. His children’s books, particularly I Want My Hat Back, are brilliantly dark and hilarious.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

LEAHY

I can clap one handed.

INTERVIEWER

A bad film review can sink a new director, whereas a good one can catapult someone from obscurity into stardom. Do you personally feel any ethical responsibility as a reviewer?

LEAHY

I am a very enthusiastic recommender. I will bore the ears off anyone that will listen about anything I love. There is value in criticism though, as long as it’s valid.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

LEAHY

She opened the door.
SURPRISE!
Goose.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for writers?

LEAHY

Write all the time.
Write again.
Read it back, twice.
You’re never finished.
Write again.
Tea and biscuits.
Consume everything, even the bad stuff.
Invite criticism.
Listen to criticism.
Write again.

Creatives in profile: interview with Paul Scraton

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Paul Scraton is a writer and editor who grew up in Lancashire in the north of England and now lives in Berlin, Germany. Among various projects, Paul is the Editor in Chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and also contributes to Slow Travel BerlinCaught by the River. The author of Ghosts on the Shore: Travels Along Germany’s Baltic Coast, his fiction debut is  Built on Sand (published by Influx Press), which paints a picture of Berlin through a series of interconnected short stories; and in this, we discover a city three decades on from the fall of the wall, and in many ways still coming to terms with that history.

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

I am a British-born writer based in Berlin. I have been living in the German capital since 2002. I feel at home both in the north of England and in Germany, and I feel an outsider in both at the same time. As a writer, I don’t think it’s a bad place to be.

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

I have wanted to be a writer since I was about seventeen or eighteen, and although I have lots of interests, mainly involving getting outdoors, books and literature remain very important to me.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

SCRATON

Family and friends, of course, and each of them in their own unique way. When it comes to writing, it changes frequently, depending on what I am reading! At the moment I am thinking a lot about how history shapes the present, and how the stories of the past, and our knowledge of them, are particularly important in the current political climate. In this I have been thinking a lot recently about the writings of Joseph Roth and Daša Drndić. When it comes to writing on place, a long-term inspiration is Jan Morris. Her writing combines an interest in others with sharp observation, two of the most important components, I think, in any successful literature of place.

INTERVIEWER

How has your time as editor of the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, influenced the way you view the relationship between place and imagination? And how important a role does setting play in your own creative writing?

SCRATON

I think the fact that I was already interested in place and how the stories of a landscape and people can shape our understanding not only of that specific location but elsewhere is one of the main reasons that I founded the journal with Julia Stone. When it comes to my own writing, whether fiction, nonfiction or something in between, my main themes are history, memory and identity, and as such place is at the core of nearly everything I commit to paper.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said that events like the Brexit vote in the UK have brought to light the differences between so-called ‘anywhere’s’ and ‘somewhere’s – i.e. people who essentially view themselves as citizens of the world, with no particular attachment to their home town or country of origin, and those who view the world directly through the prism of their geographic origins. Do you subscribe to this as an accurate view? Or is this polarity too simplistic a view to take?

SCRATON

I think there is something going on here that needs to be understood, but I imagine it is more complex than a simple divide between citizens of ‘somewhere’ and Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere.’ I think there is a certain sense of dislocation feeding dissatisfaction for many people, not only in the UK but elsewhere. There is a difference in the populist movements that can be observed in the US, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, Poland… but one common thread is a kind of nostalgia for a rooted sense of belonging that communities supposedly had in the past. And that globalisation and all that comes with it have broken the ties that bound a community together.

This is the danger of nostalgia, that it in turn creates a sense of ‘belonging’ and identity that is exclusive rather than inclusive. That it idealises a non-existent golden era that could be returned to. People call these movements new, but there is very little in them that we haven’t seen before. What is new is the role of the internet and the media, and how it allows dangerous ideas to spread and take hold. And whenever people are split, into somewhere and nowhere, us and them, it is always important to ask: in whose interest are we being divided? It is very rarely the people themselves.

On a personal level, I would like to think of myself as both a ‘citizen of everywhere’ and, as someone born in a different country to the one where I’ve made my home, a person committed to being a ‘citizen of somewhere’ in that I want to be part of my community and understand the stories and the history that brought us to where we are in Berlin and Germany today. I have no doubt that it is possible to be both, to be both internationalist and local in outlook.

INTERVIEWER

When writing, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged story or novel?

SCRATON

I make a lot of notes. I think a lot. I go for a walk or a run. I spend a lot of time looking and feeling like I am not doing very much at all. But I have always been someone who likes to have a plan, have it fixed – whether in my head or on paper – what it is I am going to do. So it can take a while to get to the blank page (or computer screen) but then when I get there I tend to write quite quickly as I have worked most of the problems out already.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a piece of writing is ‘finished’?

SCRATON

I think I have to get to a draft I am not totally unhappy with. That is usually after two or three goes at it. Then I give it to my partner Katrin, who is always my first reader and who has an excellent bullshit and pretension detector, and whose judgement I trust more than any other. Basically when she gives the green light I feel comfortable to send it off, to the editor or to post it on my blog or whatever. If she tells me its not working, I’ll probably argue with her for a bit, go quiet, and then return to my desk because deep down I know she was right after all.

INTERVIEWER

Your fiction debut Built on Sand will be published in April this year. What has the experience of firstly writing the book, and then seeing it published, been like?

SCRATON

This is the second book I have written for my publishers Influx Press, and so I knew how the practicalities would work. My editor, Gary Budden, is someone who I greatly respect both as a publisher but also as a writer. We share many common interests and outlook on the world and in particular how we write about it (although our styles are different). So when I came up with the idea of a collection of stories set in Berlin and the landscapes around, I felt that it would be a project he would be interested in and would be able to help me realise. What changed during the writing and the editing process was the realisation that what I had – what we had – was actually a novel, that although each story could stand alone, together they told a wider story.

The second time around (and the book is not out at the time of writing) it is interesting to see how much easier it has been to get people to notice the book. I don’t know if it is because it is the second book, if it is because it is a novel (and set in Berlin, which must surely help), or if it is because the publishers are a more established name themselves… most likely it is a combination of all of the above.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

SCRATON

All the main hopes were in the writing and bringing it to publication, and they’ve been fulfilled. Of course, I hope people discover it and like what I have written. And I hope that some of the themes in the book will resonate, and will make people think about their own relationships to place, and how history and memory, both collective and personal, shape our understanding of the world around us.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

SCRATON

Only in that I am still trying to find the best way to say what it is I want to say, so my responsibility is to keep working on it.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

SCRATON

I think we all have to accept that – with the exception of the very few – most of us will need to do other work to pay the bills. I do copywriting and other bits and pieces for travel companies and content agencies. I do walking tours on the streets of Berlin (which has certainly been good for honing the storytelling skills).  I don’t really have an answer because I still know that I am one of the lucky ones. I have time to write. I can make time to travel. I have a supportive partner. There are people with much more difficult circumstances than mine who create amazing things, and I am in awe of them. The deeper question is, why do we as society not value art and music and literature in a way that means that artists, musicians and writers can live from their work? Because the danger is that the majority of voices we will hear will increasingly come from a privileged minority, those who can afford, one way or the other, to “pursue their passions”. This will have the knock-on effect of only increasing the idea that the arts are for the few and not for the many.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your writing? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

SCRATON

I have started the next novel and have some loose ideas for nonfiction books, one set in the north of England and the other in the hills of Germany. All three books will no doubt continue to explore ideas of history, memory, identity and place. As I answered earlier: I am still trying to work out the best way to say what it is I want to say.

 

 

Mud, books, and Greek mythology: interview with David Henningham

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David Henningham 

When we first caught up with David and Ping Henningham, of Henningham Family Press, they had just been commissioned to make a major public arts contribution to the Central Hall of Artists in Moscow.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the duo behind this dynamic printing press are once again deep into an exciting new creative project – and getting knee deep in mud to do so.

‘Mud’ is the new book by Chris McCabe, which follows his debut novel, Dedalus, also published by Henningham Family Press (HFP).

The couple have been raising funds to support the publication of the book through a recently launched Kickstarter project. And yet, in typical HFP fashion, this is no ordinary printed book – but rather one that blurs the boundary between art and writing.

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‘Mud’ – the new book by Chris McCabe, published by Henningham Family Press

Described by the creative duo as ‘an Artists’ Book in exquisite handmade and paperback versions’, Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with David Henningham to find out more about the project.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about Chris McCabe’s new book ‘Mud’ – and what you’re planning on doing with it.

HENNINGHAM

Mud is a story re-imagining Orpheus & Eurydice in contemporary London. Borak and Karissa must find a bubble buried in mud, somewhere. Along their way into the Underworld beneath Hampstead Heath, to scour the 24 types of mud, they are followed by their film crew and its odious Director. As they chance upon bones, bricks and talking Moles, they must restrain themselves from throttling each other. And falling in love all over again.

We have begun a quest with Chris McCabe parallel to that of his characters underground; an addition to the conventional editing process. We’ve been collecting different types of London mud to use as pigments and salvaging a half-brick, involved in a car crash, to use as our printing block (the perfect metaphor for Borak and Kar’s relationship). We used the faces of the brick to cast Orphic shapes resembling thresholds, mounds and tunnels of the Underworld.

This process will produce three versions of the book that use the same printed pages:

  • High-quality Paperback
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type with unique limited edition print
  • Deluxe Hardback, representing a mud type, in solander box with unique sculpture

INTERVIEWER

Why Mud?

HENNINGHAM

I can’t answer that, except to say that the notion there are 24 types of mud has totally changed the way I see the world. I keep spotting muds with extraordinary colour or texture and thinking ‘we missed that one!’ I suspect that somewhere in there, this sensation that language variegates experience of the world is “why Mud”.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital publishing, amid the rise of e-books and audiobooks; how important is it, do you think, that as readers we return to the physical value books have and invest in printed copies? Do you see your production of hand-made books to be a revolt against artifice or digitalisation?

HENNINGHAM

No, digital technology makes book production and selling cleaner, quicker, cheaper and easier at every stage, which is the most important aspect to us. Our handmade books are enabled by digital technology.

Ebooks are just a copyright thing, they prevent creative opportunity in my experience, but audiobooks are interesting to us. We love moving texts into different creative forms. I like the fact that our books will be among the best someone will handle, and that there’s something you can only get from the book because that means it is a book that has fully exploited the form. But I’m not interested in dominating anything. If someone thinks books aren’t important to them, I’ll wave them on their merry way. If they don’t like stories, I refer them to a special watch list at the Dept of Culture, Media, Sport, Shopping and Lawnmowers.

INTERVIEWER

In your Kickstarter project, you say you believe artist-Writers shouldn’t just be producing radical words; but also radical means of production and distribution. Can you expand on this – is there a Marxist element to your publishing ethos?

HENNINGHAM

Not Marxist, although I’m sympathetic to the Socialist publishing aspirations of B.S. Johnson you can find in Jonathan Coe’s biography, and admire Marxist friends who find a way to navigate the book Market.

What I mean by it is that, instead of approaching the current system of commissioning and selling books and trying to publish books that will change the world, the system itself must be changed in the process. Take diversity. Rooms full of privileged people are saying “how can we publish more diverse writers?” I suspect it isn’t working because the system is token operated. Not only are the people in the room almost all privileged, they begin by saying “how can we help these people?” The Hogarth Press had a fantastic record on publishing women writers. Because of what it was, not because of any policy. So if you want to make a Press that publishes X kind of writing, you need to make a Press the shape that will produce that writing. Not a mini-Corporate.

INTERVIEWER

How can aspiring artists and writers – or newly established publishing houses – reclaim the means of production and distribution from the corporate behemoths who dominate the publishing (and indeed wider media) landscape?

HENNINGHAM

The difference is between big organisations and partnerships of smaller organisations. Become a member of a group of smaller organisations and work together cooperatively if you want to take on the corporates.

If you simply want to make a few things and get them out there, you just need to find the right printer (production) and attend DIY book or arts fairs (distribution).

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through the sensation of crafting one of your books – is there a connection, do you think, between publisher and physical book that goes beyond a desire to sell copies? And where does the line between art and writing collide and/or blur?

HENNINGHAM

When I’m binding I’m very much thinking with my hands. I’m sort of aware of language, and thoughts apparently located in my head, but mostly it’s my hands working almost independently. I also stopped thinking ahead much, I seem to know what to do next without planning.

Afterwards, for me, it’s about getting the fruits of that process as close to readers as possible, but I suspect most publishers aren’t approaching it this way. They have babies, while I’m more of a midwife. Or a sorcerer.

INTERVIEWER

In many ways, the focus your project places on words influencing the physical design of the book – as well as the structure and form – makes this a thoroughly modernist piece of art and writing; yet the source material for the novel is from Ancient Greek mythology. What is the relationship, do you think, between the classical and the modern? And how important are the works of literary figures like James Joyce to informing any such debate on this topic?

HENNINGHAM

Well as you suggest, Ulysses took myth as its structure and embedded it in modernity. We don’t get equally influenced by all world mythologies, though. Some ancient stories are simply bizarre to us. It’s not just that we’re used to Greek myths, there’s something recognisable about the people and gods in them, and the themes, such as metamorphosis, we carry with us.

In the Penelope section at the end of Dedalus (his sequel to Ulysses), I suspect Chris McCabe wrote a kind of manifesto for himself, about writing myth. If so, he’s delivered in spades with Mud.

INTERVIEWER

Can anything ever be truly ‘new’, ‘modern’, or ‘unique’?

HENNINGHAM

It’s interesting to push it to the other extreme; to try making something the opposite of unique. It will always have this stubborn singularity.

INTERVIEWER

What’s been your experience of using Kickstarter to support your project? What role do crowdfunding models have to play in the current publishing and artistic sectors?

HENNINGHAM

We have been able to share our excitement around a project while we are still genuinely excited about it. Marketing afterwards is fun, but it’s more about sustaining that excitement and sharing a finished product. Involving people in the process and having a way of updating them as we make things for the book changes it too. The rewards structure has obliterated the barrier between our trade and handmade versions.  

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Modernism or post-modernism?

HENNINGHAM

Modernism

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to an art gallery?

HENNINGHAM

Book

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

HENNINGHAM

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Such a contested field! Agota Kristoff? Or I’d like to see Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden (which was acclaimed in the small press world) accepted wholeheartedly by mainstream booksellers and readers.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated writer/artist?

HENNINGHAM

Again, such a contested field! J.K Rowling. So slow and clunky. Magic for people who don’t like to be surprised. Why bother. Ctrl+v Diana Wynne-Jones.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

HENNINGHAM

British Viceroy Robert Bulwer-Lytton was a famous poet and responsible for the deaths of between 6 and 13 million Indian subjects in the Late Victorian period.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

HENNINGHAM

Drawing road-markings made Doug’s handwriting taller.

INTERVIEWER

What 5-10 pieces of advice can you give to people thinking of exploring crowdfunding as a means of getting their writing or artwork out there?

HENNINGHAM

  • Get advice and key questions from their representatives or online knowledge base and do everything they tell you to. They’ve done it a million times.
  • Contact 30 committed supporters and get them ready to pledge in the first 48 hours.
  • Involve people in a process. Make sure you are doing something for the project other than talking about money in that 30 days and make daily updates of the work in progress.
  • Have a theme derived from your project and apply it to all your reward names and updates.
  • Make a video. If it’s just you, a selfie stick and windows movie maker, that’s fine. Without it nobody really knows you.
  • Look out for trolls. If someone spends big, have a look at their identity before announcing you’ve hit your target and raise it with Kickstarter if you think they look suspicious.
  • There will also be spam.

 

To find out more about Chris McCabe’s new novel, and to pledge your support for this fantastic project, please visit the Kickstarter page

 

6 things that should be better known

Better Known

At Nothing in the Rulebook, we love starting conversations and building new creative relationships. So we were thrilled to be invited onto a wonderful new podcast called Better Known Show, hosted by Ivan Wise, which seeks to uncover new things that guests think should be better known.

As Ivan set out in an article for NITRB, “If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same.”

Well, we couldn’t agree more. On the show, we pick six things we think should be better known. If you don’t want to spoil the surprise – click the link and subscribe (on Android or iTunes), and check out our episode!

But, if you don’t mind spoilers, read on!

6 things that should be better known, according to Nothing in the Rulebook

  1. The Future Library project in Norway
  2. Dr Chuck Tingle Professor of Massage
  3. The bad sex in fiction awards
  4. No Alibis book shop http://www.noalibis.com
  5. Richard Serra’s “portend I slugten” at the Louisiana art gallery in Denmark http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/richard-serra-porten-i-slugten
  6. Josh Spiller’s IF comic book anthology on superheroes
    http://www.joshspillercomics.tumblr.com

And a few things that we mention that almost made the cut:

Now what are you waiting for? Go listen to the episode!

Beyond the popular canon: things that should be better known

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“We soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so.”

If you need a recommendation right now, there will be no shortage of suggestions. The problem is that far too many of them are exactly the same. For instance, in looking for something to watch on a Saturday night, your search for “greatest films” will be answered with an infinity of lists compiled with varying degrees of judgement but surprising levels of consistency. Automated recommendations generally just give you more of what you have already asked for. Critical ones seem to clone themselves, as if unwilling to depart from an agreed line. Citizen Kane is repeatedly right up there, according to the American Film Institute (number 1 film of all time), Sight and Sound (number 2), Hollywood Reporter (3) and Rotten Tomatoes (4). But what if you’ve already seen it, and didn’t even think it was that good? What then?

By adulthood, most of us are aware of the historical figures, places and books represented by what can loosely be categorised as the canon: the list that you were taught at school, that books and newspapers tell you are the best and most important. Sometimes, we agree with them, sometimes not, but we soon learn that Shakespeare, the Grand Canyon and the Bible are worthy of our attention because everyone keeps telling us so. It is supplemented by a popular canon, as expressed by your social media, of more ephemeral, instant pleasures, that may have an unstoppable democratic force, but that does not mean that you always share them.

Any canon is important, as it provides a society with a shared catalogue of experiences and reference points; otherwise, how does one know what to speak about to a stranger? But your curiosity about the world need not stop there. How much more interesting, every so often, to put the canon to one side, and say to someone, “Tell me about a great book that I’ve never heard of.”

My podcast Better Known sets out to ask people what they love that the rest of the world does not seem to value. In short: what should be better known?

People are keen to answer the question, firstly because we all love talking about what we are passionate about, but also because we do not always get the opportunity. Most people have quirks in their tastes that are slightly unorthodox but we rarely get a chance to talk about our obscure preferences, precisely because other people are not familiar with them. Generally, in conversation, most people are looking to have their beliefs confirmed than challenged, and so they may not be in the mood to hear anything new. Instead, much of our social life only covers those topics which we know are popular and thus safe, and so it is easy to live one’s life with others only through the pleasures which the news picks out for us.

Through dozens of interviews, I have heard about the fascinating objects, events and ideas which guests hold dear and feels compelled to impress upon other people. The novelist Joanne Harris spoke about the Child Ballads, hundreds of traditional stories collected in the nineteenth century. Biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett discussed a book which her mother had written about a nineteenth century dinner party of writers and artists. Writer Ben Schott explained why movie posters look the way they do. It has been inspiring to hear and then take up these suggestions of things which I would otherwise have never known about.

For some guests, the obscurity of their choice provides a pleasure. They like the fact that they have uncovered something that others have not. For others, they enjoy the obscurity, particularly of a place, for a more practical reason: if lots of people knew about the place, then its serenity, part of its appeal, would be ruined. But, most of all, they make their choices because we are all individuals, and sometimes what we like most of all may not have officially made the grade, but is nonetheless worthy of their – and maybe your – time.

Each episode aims to bring a person with private obscure passions to an audience eager to learn more about what is best in the world. Each guest selects six things, and so you begin to get a real sense of who they are through the range of their choices without necessarily knowing particular facts about them, their job or their life. By way of contrast, and to ensure we do not drown in positivity, they also get to pick one thing which they think should be less well known and it is frequently a highlight for me to hear someone go from such radiant optimism to unbridled cynicism so rapidly. Picnics, liver and jeans are among those proposed as being overrated. But the focus always then returns to what they like.

It is easy, as an adult, to stop learning anything new, and to exist endlessly off inspiration from the past. If you want to remain curious about the world, and continue to be inspired, you have to make an active effort. Better Known aims to be an entertaining introduction into a world of inspiration that you previously knew little about. You will not agree with all recommendations, but you will hopefully learn something new. After all, how many more endorsements for Citizen Kane does one need?

About the author of this article

IW.jpgIvan Wise presents the Better Known podcast (www.betterknown.co.uk). He is a former editor of The Shavian, the journal of the George Bernard Shaw Society, about which he has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Educational Supplement and The Guardian website, and was the expert witness on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives. He works in the charity sector, for Think Ahead, a mental health organisation that recruits and trains graduates to become social workers.

Creatives in profile: interview with No Alibis Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves and your background

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

Once upon a time, she was.

INTERVIEWER

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

NO ALIBIS PRESS

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

Why is BoJack Horseman so popular? Simple: it’s real

bojackhorseman

If you’re reading this article, the likely reason is that you’ve seen the name BoJack Horseman and clicked on a link somewhere out in the wilds of the internet or social media. You’ve recognised the name and it’s peaked your interest. Why have you heard that name? Simple – because since BoJack Horseman was released in 2014, it has gained critical and popular acclaim – showered in praise for the way it skilfully probes existential anxiety, interweaving zany, offbeat comedy with sometimes sly humour, as well as intensely sad or ‘dark’ moments. It’s popular, in other words; and for good reason: it’s real.

That a cartoon show about a substance-abusing middle-aged horse feels like the most real thing many people have seen for so many years says more about our current cultural malaise than we might like to admit. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

One of the factors that makes BoJack feel so real – so relatable – is the fact that the characters in the show must face the consequences of their actions. No character is “too big to fail” (in the way the banks that crashed the global economy were allowed to carry on Scott-free while the average person has had to shoulder the burdens and crises they created). As Arielle Bernstein writes in an article for The Guardian:

“Throughout the series, we see child BoJack, eager and wide-eyed in his little sailor suit, being verbally abused by his mother and father. But while the series encourages us to see BoJack’s own self-absorption as a response to a traumatic childhood, it also insists that BoJack not be given a free pass. In his heart of hearts, BoJack is never a “bad guy” per se, but his thoughtless choices often have very real impacts on everyone around him.”

Yet, while this is an admirable aspect of the show – that it has created extremely well-rounded characters who we can relate to – the true ‘realness’ of the show comes from the way it counters other aspects of our current society.

The power of the image

Firstly, we must consider the use of images in both the show and in our culture – and the way in which BoJack Horseman subverts what Lacan would term ‘natural’ images with referent – or ‘signified’ images. At its very basic, this is ultimately a joke about the fact that we are all animals – the playful humour of seeing a golden Labrador wearing a v-neck t-shirt, rocking aviator sunglasses and being obsessed with the skunk from next door is funny and surreal. There is also a clear use of Lacanian mirror imagery between BoJack and his ‘inverted mirror’, Mr. Peanutbutter. Mirrors can also be found between the ‘real’ BoJack and his TV personality on 90s sitcom Horsin’ around, as well as his TV detective character, Philbert – and during this portrayal the mirror line blurs completely in Episode 11, “The showstopper”, in which we all witness a very real “crossover episode”, to coin a favourite line from the show. Once again, visual and symbolic mirrors abound in series five episode 7, when we meet not BoJack, but ‘Bobo the Zebra’.

Yet for all BoJack’s surrealism and superficial escapism, the heart of the show carries messages that, simply, resonate with audiences. The escapism that BoJack and his cohorts pursue is the same that we ourselves seek. That it feels ‘honest’, and ‘true’ is often conflated as being ‘dark’ – as though the idea of a person who doesn’t quite feel that everything is okay within themselves, despite being rich and famous, and takes actions that are nearly always morally ambiguous or questionable, is in someway only explainable if we describe it as “dark”. Doing this, however, otherises such concepts and thus fails to recognise that the real reason the show has such an avid following and has picked up such critical acclaim is because the ‘dark’ aspects of the show aren’t dark at all – they are in fact extremely relatable, particularly for anyone who has ever found that their entire construct of societal expectations has been built around lies meant to satisfy shareholders; not to satisfy our egos or our real natures or purposes. Indeed, when faced with this realisation and reality, the actions that BoJack pursues, the depression, the anger, anxiety, denial, etc. – these become not only normal or relatable, but actually natural reactions to an extremely unnatural world and society.

In an excellent documentary series, The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis explains how, since the 1960s, there have been attempts by both psychiatrists and those in power to make us feel as though certain natural human responses to life are the symptoms of serious psychological or mental disorders. This is partly because the financial, marketing and operational models on which capitalism – and particularly consumerism – relies, have been built on the ideal of human beings as rational, self-serving, individuals. This, of course, flies in the face of evidence that suggests human beings are quite often irrational, altruistic members of communities, tribes and societies as a whole.

Living in a world in which we are told that to feel sad is a sign of a serious mental disorder; in which we are told we can only ever aspire to satiate our own desires by buying more and more things, despite the fact that we are ultimately just searching for real, meaningful connections with other people, places us all in an existential crisis that is vividly and expertly portrayed in BoJack Horseman.

Again, images are important here. In both societies (that of BoJack’s Hollywoo and our own world), materialism – and the images that go with it – run rampant. Consumerism is the order of the day; and both TV show and our reality are subject to the fact that consumerism as a socioeconomic is fundamentally built upon the engineering of desire through psychological manipulation, which is achieved by using images – including advertising and peer pressure – to make us inclined to purchase more and more stuff.

Why does this matter? Being bombarded and overwhelmed by images that are not real – that lack any substance beyond activating something in us that makes us feel empty and fuels our desire to consume, ultimately creates a genuine emptiness and aching for reality. As David Shields notes in Reality Hunger: 

“Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we year for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something real against all the fabrication.”

The problem with materialism

BoJack lays bare the problem with materialism and consumerism in a way precious few TV shows have dared to do.

An impressive body of academic research suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

Depression, anxiety, broken relationships; socially destructive and self-destructive. Remind you of anything?

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. What’s more, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, we become more selfish, and more likely to act and behave in the ways large corporations need in order to make continual disgustingly large profits.

The irrationality of society

For years, then mainstream cultural programmes have adopted the use of imagery and story narratives to support and reinforce the myths that keep them in power and maintain the status quo – to help the consumerist models function; and to keep us spending money, buying more things – all in the ultimate pursuit of our supposed individual happiness.

There are obviously numerous problems with this – not least from a moral perspective. Yet events in recent years have markedly laid out some of the flaws in this approach.

In the first instance, the collapse of the world financial system (triggered in part by massive acquisition of unsustainable personal, individual debts) and subsequent global recession has forced millions of people in Western Society to live in times of extreme austerity. Among many other (perhaps more pressing) issues with this – such as child poverty, rising crime, inequality, – the era of low wages and job scarcity or insecurity that has been created by the austerity model has made it impossible for people to actually exist and function within the previous consumer system as they had been told to. In other words, they had been denied the means with which to participate in the consumerist culture. How can you buy the latest deluxe car when you can’t afford to heat your own home or pay your rent?

Without the means to participate in consumerism, people have started to recognise that the society in which they live, and the dreams they have been told to pursue, are in fact not recogniseable, achievable, or real. The reality of their situation is that the entire system has been broken – and so a world which continues to expect them to accrue personal debt in order to buy the latest fashion trend is not a world in which they can be rationally expected to live.

Beyond the fiction of reality

This all, ultimately, leads us back to BoJack – a world in which to be self-aware is often to become self-destructive. To recognise the faults in the world can lead to despair (because you can’t hope to change things); but also in which ignoring reality and going along with societal pressures is to sacrifice any true sense of identity. Indeed, those characters which lack depth or sense of realness are those who lack any self-awareness – a ‘Ryan Seacrest type’, for instance; a character with so little identity he is only a trace (again to use a Lacanian term) of somebody else. In this world, the most natural response is one that does not seem ‘natural’ – as the system would like you to believe – but rather, to respond to a system that is entirely broken by becoming broken yourself; or reacting to the impossibility of the ask placed upon us as individuals by coming to impossible conclusions (see any of Mr Peanutbutter’s whacky ideas for starters here). The show feels real because the characters are negotiating a broken society that mirrors our own. As Slavoj Zizek has noted: “beyond the fiction of reality lies the reality of the fiction.” We are drawn to the reality of the fiction (in this case, a television show about a celebrity horse) because it is what Lacan would describe as the signifier of something we inherently lack in our own world: reality and realness. We experience so few ‘real’ images, that ones that signify truth – the reality of our situation – become precious and to be treasured.

Ultimately, this helps us more effectively bond with the characters and empathise with them. This is important – particularly in a world in which reports of loneliness are skyrocketing – because it illustrates how BoJack Horseman becomes nourishing, even redemptive; we become less alone inside because we recognise that our reaction to the impossibilities of the world is not confined to our own skulls. BoJack Horseman, then, helps us become less alone inside.

And that’s why we need it.