Creatives in profile: interview with Joseph Alexander

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Joseph Alexander – a writer of some mystery – assures us that a secretive reading group can be found through clues in this image…happy deciphering, comrades!

Joseph Alexander is a writer from a mixed Romani / white working class background. He went to Oxford for grad school and PhD, where he also taught for about 5 years. At Oxford, he had a one-sided feud with Richard Dawkins for stealing his vegetarian lunch, until they sat next to each other at dinner and talked it over. He has also held a visiting fellowship at Harvard, feud-free.

Joseph writes literary fiction and essays. He lives with his wife and labrador and is currently working on a novel. The first few chapters of his novel-in-progress are available for free at: https://www.wattpad.com/story/185509944-vz

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with Joseph in the latest instalment of our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series.

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

I can’t tell you where I live or too much about my lifestyle for reasons that are not as interesting as this will no doubt make it seem. Basically, I only have like 5 fans but they are very enthusiastic.

I grew up in a kind of halfway Romani/white working class culture. We got into fights a lot as children, everyone seemed to want to beat us up for some reason. I just thought that’s what it’s like to be a boy. I have a crack in my skull and all kinds of scars and it’s only my now-wife who pointed out that maybe even the ‘normal part’ of my childhood wasn’t all that normal. When you grow up with prejudice, you don’t even realise that you’re treated differently. And hiding your background becomes this subconscious thing that you’ve just been Pavloved into doing over the years, and your level of skill in will determine your fate to a large extent. It’s only now that I’ve started telling people.

I showed musical promise early, so I semi-voluntarily applied and got in a hard-ass music academy where we did like 20h of music a week and crammed every other subject into the remaining time. But to put a long story short, there was a series of real tragedies that kind of made my life soundtrack go permanently quiet when I was in my teens. Music has a kind of trapeze artist joy that I just couldn’t get back after everything, so I eventually stopped. Got into maths pretty seriously for a few years, even came second in my school maths-competition, but it was too far down the other extreme – it has real beauty that increases the deeper you go, but also a kind of conceptual coldness. So I eventually found something in between.

Went to Oxford for this famously tough graduate programme, went on to do a PhD (or DPhil as they call it to feel special) and taught there for about five years. I also had this weird semi-formal fellowship thing at Harvard that they give either to people who have promising early careers or are in exile from a successful career elsewhere. I’m not sure how that happened. I’m now part of their weird Alluminati network that has, like, Tony Blair and a bunch of others, and everyone posts in a private network about how they “found their passion” or “dreamt of changing the world”. I shit you not.

So that’s probably enough for now, though I didn’t even tell you about the weird super-Christian religious sect my mum’s family was a part of, or the time I was a platoon leader, or the time I got shot. Next time.

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

Writing is my first love, it’s just that I had to sort of come out of the writing closet. Like a lot of writers, you experiment with stuff in your early life and keep some plan Bs open and maybe the writing works out, maybe it doesn’t. But fiction writing is something I’ve done since I was a child (in my first ever report card my teacher even says she likes my “imaginative little stories”, god knows what she saw), but in my culture of origin it’s not, I guess, socially acceptable for a man to tell stories. I think a lot of working class people can relate. You’re supposed to be hard, and to know your way around an arm bar, and if you just want to be by yourself with a notebook people laugh at you. And someone always bloody found the stories I’d written, and read them out loud to people, so I got into the habit of critiquing my work early and burning or burying (literally, so it can’t be found) the stuff I didn’t like. I basically wrote because I had to, not because I wanted to be a fancy writer. It’s more that I couldn’t make it go away.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ALEXANDER

Oh man. I should say right off the bat that I’m foundationally suspicious of hero worship. Like, everything about it is absolutely, just axiomatically wrong.

Writing-wise, there are a few people whose stuff just shimmers off the page and makes you fall in love with the craft again. Like George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Munro, Thomas Pynchon, some of David Foster Wallace. Don DeLillo’s stuff is pretty inspiring too, on a line-by-line level, although I always feel like I didn’t get the whole book when I finish it.

Life-wise, it tends to be people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Greta Thunberg. These are people who saw that there is a lot that’s wrong with this world, and their natural reaction wasn’t “oh shit, better go hunker down somewhere and pray it doesn’t concern me”. It’s easy to think now that they were destined to become the icons that they are becoming, but it must have just been absolutely hopeless when AOC was sitting in her tiny overpriced NYC apartment and going to her bartending job while campaigning, or when Greta Thunberg first decided “that’s it, I’ve had enough of this shit, I’m going on strike.” The things both could do were so tiny and pointless (like who actually cares if some 15-year-old doesn’t show up at school one day, it’s hardly unusual, or if some bartender runs in a primary), but they did them anyway. They both knew they were basically insignificant little nobodies, and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll make any difference. But someone has to do something, so they did. That does inspire me. Normal, insignificant nobodies have tremendous resources when they really decide to do something.

INTERVIEWER

Your story, ‘VZ’, is set in the near future, at a point in time after a near cataclysmic event. How likely is it, do you think, that mankind is facing some form of catastrophe?

ALEXANDER

The ‘cataclysmic event’ in VZ is a bit funny, and kind of hard to talk about without spoiling it. But I’ll just say it may not be quite the catastrophe that it’s made to seem, at least not for everyone, and it may have actually happened and nobody noticed. Or maybe the things people did to stop it from happening were a far greater catastrophe. So it’s not a “dystopian novel” in that sense, you’re meant to doubt whether anything bad actually even happened.

The point of this, or one of them, is that all kinds of catastrophes happen all the time, and we just pretend like they never happened as long as they fit within the parameters of our preconceptions. Syria was obviously not perfect, but had a lot of well-educated people who were basically liberal individualists (I mean ‘liberal’ here in the classical sense, not whatever Fox News means by it) and genuine hope for a well-functioning participatory society. Now it’s a desperate hellhole that superpowers use to test their weapons on, just to show the other side they’ve got them, and could well be the place the apocalypse begins at. Turkey was edging closer to a full-on liberal democracy, until it became like Erdogan’s version of Gilead that is just a fertility shortage away from real Atwood territory. We’re back on the path of nuclear proliferation, climate change policy is apparently just everyone waiting for everyone else to do something. And these last two could destroy human civilisation as we know it, possibly completely.

I think humankind has faced (and is currently facing) all kinds of catastrophes, but we go on and pretend like they basically never happened and that they’re completely normal events. If people get upset at the effects of these events, someone comes along and directs that anger towards immigrants and poor people. So catastrophes are apparently fine, as long as they are ones that we kind of knew to expect. It’s the unexpected events that aren’t really all that significant, if you think about it, that we label ‘catastrophes’, like Trump winning the election or Brexit. Both are just continuations of pretty predictable trends and not even close to being on the same scale of event as, say, climate change or the poverty crisis in the UK and US, but we’re losing our shit over Trump and Brexit while thinking of maybe switching to a hybrid car and giving £5 to Oxfam once.

So the ‘cataclysmic event’ in VZ is about this kind of mass hypnosis, and in that respect it’s meant to be a reflection on the actual state of affairs.

INTERVIEWER

In the story, we often encounter moments where our protagonist/narrator almost looks to psychoanalyse themselves as well as other members of society he encounters. How closely do the narrator’s thoughts mirror your own, and why do you think human beings behave in the (myriad) strange ways that we do?

ALEXANDER

From a certain angle, the book is about empathy and failures thereof. The central-stage characters in the book are kind of locked in their own heads and trying desperately to get out, connect with and understand other people. But we have really limited ways of conveying what is in our heads to the heads of others, and so to that extent I am like the characters. Being a writer, I agonise over which words to choose, and what other tools to use to open up commlinks between my head and the reader’s head. It’s a constant struggle to close this distance between what I write and what I want the reader to see or feel.

I think this is a need that everyone has, and from one angle the book is about that need and the crazy things it can get people to do. Some characters in the book do it through psychoanalysing themselves and others for similarities, some do it through exerting control over other people (i.e. making other people the receptacles of their thoughts and wishes), some are out for revenge because they want other people to feel the way they feel and so on. But they’re all trying to feel a kind of sameness and common humanity, as paradoxical as the methods they choose might be. In a sense, they want proof that others are like them. That need, I think, is at the root of a lot of the strange ways we human beings behave in, but common roots can lead to very different branches.

As to the narrator’s thoughts/voice, I do some tricks with the narrator that are meant to get you to think “is this the real Joseph trying to sledgehammer through the text and talk to me?” or “is this the real Joseph accidentally showing through, in that he wrote this or in this way because he is/isn’t [insert feature here, e.g. male, female, unnecessarily into maths, liberal, conservative, Christian, Buddhist, straight, gay, transgender, Romani, black, white, privileged, underprivileged, etc]”. The reasons I do this involve some of the bigger payouts in the book so I can’t spoil it.

INTERVIEWER

Your story covers quite a bit – from economic doctrine, religion, right through to the idea of reality as a simulation, and Artificial Intelligence. These are topics that have captured the imaginations of writers, and readers, for years. What is it that draws you, specifically, to them?

ALEXANDER

Well, many of these are sort of chosen constructs for the purposes of the book. So I just chose them because they were necessary. If we take the empathy angle, economics is just a way to understand and regulate (aggregate) human behaviour and empathy, religion is a way to find both outside community and internal purpose or interpretation of one’s feelings and desires, the study of artificial intelligence (meaning what they now call “general intelligence” and not just machine learning) is an attempt to define what it is that goes on in our head that we call intelligence and how would we recognise it in a machine. It’s basically trying to define what it is to have a mind. The simulation thing in the book is this kind of creeping nightmare monster opposite – what if other people are not like you, and it’s all just a simulation and you, and possibly the AI that simulates you, are the only ones who have free will or real thoughts and feelings and so on. It’s supposed to sound cool and kind of Matrix-y at first, in that the realisation is sold as kind of liberating because you can do whatever you want and you’re the most important person in the world, but when you really understand all its implications and realise it means you are alone, and trapped, in a real and serious prison that there is no way out of, it’s meant to be terrifying. It’s sort of meant to be the logical endpoint of a culture that emphasises extreme individuality and calls it “freedom”.

So the topics of the book have been sort of thematically chosen. It then became clear that it had to be set in the future, to give me a bit more narrative room and tools to play with, and voila, VZ was born.

INTERVIEWER

In your mind, are we living in a simulation? If not, how do we make sense of our reality?

ALEXANDER

Kind of depends what simulation means. I don’t think anyone is actually directing society to see what would happen with given parameters, so I don’t think we’re literally living in a simulation.

But at the same time, we do live a kind of dream – in Europe and in the US at least, and probably elsewhere too. There’s a great book that everyone should read (though it’s a bit academic) called Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, about how people in the Soviet Union both absolutely knew the whole system was bound to come crashing down any day, but also absolutely could not believe it when it actually happened. A lot of people are like that with Western-style corporate capitalism now, everyone knows it could come crashing down on our heads any day now and that you cannot have infinite growth in a finite environment. Some people I’ve talked to who really had ring-side seats at the time thought it was already happening in 2008. Like, seriously, people who really knew what was going on thought it was all going down. And maybe it did, we just put it on life support and think that everything was fixed but actually we’re just hanging on more and more artificial and drastic life-support. But at the same time, we really cannot imagine any other reality despite the fact that corporate capitalism of any form that we would recognise has only been around for about 150 years, and has effects like distributing more resources (and I mean a lot more) to people who take photos of their bums in bikinis than to the rice farmer they are standing in front of and using as props. And the farmer’s job is literally to feed other people. I mean it’s nuts if you think about it, which is why most people don’t – and that is the dream we project onto our corneas.

So we kind of self-simulate (as the actress said to the bishop, ba-dum-psst).

INTERVIEWER

How did you go about writing VZ, what was your process?

ALEXANDER

Some of the first ideas were sketched out over a long period of time. Like I remember going past an old school that was being torn down and seeing the mangled rebar and concrete and, like a blackboard miraculously standing in the middle of it that still had some text or numbers, and thinking “what if someone bombed this place last night and they’re just disguising this as a demolition/construction site because they don’t want people to panic?” i.e., what if there’s a war going on and nobody knows it. Then I started poking at the idea a couple of years ago, writing up all kinds of things that would have to happen for that to be true and playing with it. Like, who would want to do that, how would they actually do it, why would they want to do that, why do countries even go to war and so on. The simplest scenario of how to approximate the effects of war on a population without the population realising it’s going on ended up looking not too different than the basic operation of certain economic doctrines (which were, funnily enough, the reason the school was being torn down in the first place). So I thought this was interesting enough to do a whole book on, and it kind of grew from there.

This past year or so I’ve been sort of financially secure enough to just sit and write out all the ideas, and so that’s what I did. There is very little process to it, except just to do the best you can and just keep doing it, every day. I got a good kick start when my wife went away for about three weeks on a work thing, so it was just me and my dog and we went a bit feral in our flat, with me writing the first maybe 30-40k words of this book. From there it was safe to just keep going and see where the text takes you. Some days (maybe most) are really infuriatingly difficult but you just have to show up and keep writing, and when the draft is done you rearrange it and reorder things and take a deep breath and do it again. When you’re confident that you can do no more on it, try to find an editor. Either a professional one, or just a friend who likes books (and you).

I promise you, it will only be done when you’re sick of it.

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

Oh boy. This might become the longest answer anyone has given you, feel free to stop reading at any point.

Advice? Write a book that is less than 300 pages (so aim for like 70k-90k words, definitely don’t go over 100k or you might as well not write it), have a single, or max two main characters and the story will be about how she/they arrived again at the place she/they left and saw it for the first time. Do a plot where there’s a set-up, a challenge, a crisis, a point of no return, a point of transformation, a climax and a neat resolution. Have an interesting, marketable persona (and remember, the word ‘persona’ literally means ‘mask’, something you hide your true self behind) and have people mistake you for the main character, so they think they’re buying you when they buy the book.

Industry rant begins (feel free to skip, but I promise I’m going to use “mama-bird” as a verb):

You know, I really think we’re in a sorry state with literary fiction and (big) publishers are making it so much worse by trying to make it better. Basically, they’re looking for the lowest common denominator and want a story that is easily understandable and fits a conventional structure. Theoretically this is because they want a wide potential audience, but actually means the end result will be this bland compromise that interests precisely nobody and the only creative parts are the details or casting. It’s a business so they need products that sell, I get that, but I also think people are genuinely sick of the neat narrative arcs because those arcs simple and predictable and kind of stupid. Just look at the stories that people are actually going nuts about – Game of Thrones had way more main characters and even killed off some of them really early before their arcs could be resolved, Stranger Things has a really complex plot that sits on at least 8 criss-crossing main character paths, Rick and Morty actually overtly parodies the neat arc structure and the episodes where they do it most are cult classics (like the giant heads one, or the pickle one and what have you). And these aren’t even directed to a sophisticated audience that reads a lot of difficult stuff, the way that “literary fiction” is meant to be, I’ve deliberately chosen pop-culture examples that appeal to masses of people.

So the idea that readers aren’t going to “get it” if the story is complicated is bullshit, but the publishing industry has been burned so badly that it’s now just in full damage-limitation mode, cowering in a corner and unable to take initiative, and unable to publish books that boldly take an angle and aren’t for everyone. Part of this is just structural. Agents and editors don’t have the time to read a book proposal or draft twice to understand it, they’re leafing through it together with four other drafts and while on the phone to a distributor or marketer and writing an email to Kate from Random House or something. What is really dictating content now is whether they get it, so the gatekeeper audience you’re trying to push through isn’t the person in a quiet reading nook with a free Sunday, a fresh pot of tea and a book, but the frantic time-poor editor/agent who has to make six final calls today and read 20 submissions, because that’s the person who gets to decide whether the person in the reading nook gets a chance to even see what you wrote.

The irony is that if you think about any of the biggest literary successes that people absolutely tie themselves in knots about year after year and that really pushed the art form forward, none of them conform to these stupid rules about arcs and character growth resolutions. Slaughterhouse 5 gives away the whole plot in the first chapter. Catch-22 has a new main character in every chapter and is more like a symphony than a narrative arc, in that it’s variations on a theme that build on top of each other. Infinite Jest has a huge hole where both the plot climax and resolution should be, and you just have to try to work it out from this 1000-page sensory-overload-haystack. Freedom is really weird structurally, breaks all kinds of style rules and the story happens almost entirely in the main characters’ heads. And who even knows what’s going on in Gravity’s Rainbow, but you read page-one and it makes you go ‘holy shit’. And these are just the ones that have sold millions of copies over the years, there are a bunch of others that have still sold really well that I could mention.

Readers want something they can chew, they don’t want to be mama-birded some pre-digested emotional manipulation that just tastes like cold sick. It’s an insult on their intelligence, and people can see that. People are smart, even if they’re not literature professors. So complexity is not the problem publishers think, but try to say that to a publisher.

(End of industry rant.)

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

It’s weird, it’s not really a specific reader but more like an abstract idea of one. I think of someone who has other shit to do and who you therefore have to give something to make it worth their while to read and to keep reading, but who also is kind enough not to think I’m doing this with bad motives or for myself. So someone who is willing to give you a bit of slack and wait for some payouts, but also someone that you do have to win over.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

ALEXANDER

Hmm. I think a lot of creativity is just seeing unexpected connections or similarities. I genuinely don’t think anyone really comes up with stuff all by themselves, you feed a lot of input signal into your noodler (so, read a lot of books) and then stuff starts to come out. I can’t really define it any better than that.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

ALEXANDER

Someone who writes, possibly as a job. Don’t be afraid to call yourself a writer. If you think it fits and feels nice, do it. Later, haters are going to show up – fuck ’em. Anyone can deny things, be one of the few people who actively assert things.

INTERVIEWER

James Joyce argued poetry was “always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality.” In the modern world, ‘actuality’ is increasingly hard to define – we live in a culture of ‘fake news’. Many have argued that literature – from poetry through to fiction – has an element of truth to it that reality itself sometimes lacks. What role do you think stories and storytelling have in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

ALEXANDER

Well, this ‘alternative facts’ or ‘fake news’ thing is really quite alarming, but it has been going on for much longer than people think. Like, basically profit-making corporate news broadcasting is institutionally almost guaranteed to result in a lot of ‘alternative facts’. Fiction has always had a place in combatting that, and I think that’s what people mean when they say that writing fiction is making up lies to tell the truth. Serious literary fiction isn’t defeated by “alternative facts”, if anything it is tailor-made for dissecting it.

Like, nobody captured what it was really like to live in the paranoid Soviet Union better than Mikhail Bulgakov, and that book (Master and Margarita) has magic and demons and women flying on brooms and whatever. Or take Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude – that book is mental but really captures the surreal reality of South America, where a (North) American fruit company can slaughter people just because they wanted a five-minute rest break or something, and your whole life just feels like it’s part of a repeating cycle of exploitation and bloodshed that goes back to colonial conquest. And also 1984, Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5 about the lies that accompany and protect war and totalitarianism – these are all born out of cultures of ‘alternative facts’.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that peoples that have really been through the shit-mill write very strange stories, because there are topics that can only ever be approached at an angle and those are the topics that “fake news” or “alternative facts” aim to hide from us – war, killing, suffering, and the pointless causes thereof. Some of the analytical terminology we use to dissect and understand what is going on with “fake news” now is actually from these books. Like I can totally imagine someone in South America saying that what is going on in Venezuela is a real Macondo, or that debating semantics when people are in concentration camps at the US border is a move from the Newspeak Playbook. These books help us understand what it is that we’re really looking at, gives it a language, and that is one of literary fiction’s purposes.

So I think now the antidote to “alternative facts” is what it has always been – serious, literary fiction that explores these topics. My book tries to do that, I’m sure a lot of others do too. Like just to mention one, Lucy Ellman’s recent, 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport is exactly the kind of genius strange fiction that helps us dissect what is going on right now.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ALEXANDER

REVOLUTIONARY GOVERNMENT REVEALS: FLORIDA NOT REAL.

INTERVIEWER

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

ALEXANDER

  1. If you can’t write today, read today.
  2. Read everything. Even the back of a cereal box, or Ayn Rand.
  3. Try to learn from everything you read. Why is this character saying this? Is she saying it to the other characters, or to you? Is that good? What do you like about this cereal box or Atlas Shrugged? Can you pinpoint the thing that makes you want to read on (or watch another episode of Stranger Things or whatever), or the thing that makes you want to stop reading (or watching)?
  4. Don’t try to “write a book”. Try to write a good story, write good sentences, describe things accurately, make characters that come alive.
  5. Writing a novel is a really ineffective strategy to become rich and famous, but it’s great for other things.
  6. In the end, it’s just a book. If it doesn’t sell, or doesn’t do well, or people don’t like it, just write another one.

Quick fire round!

Oooh shit, okay, I’m ready!

INTERVIEWER

If you could be any animal other than a human, what would it be?

ALEXANDER

A dog in a good home. (You can tell I’ve thought about this one before.)

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ALEXANDER

Uuuuhhh Slaughterhouse 5! George Saunders!

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ALEXANDER

Jodorowsky’s Incal. Any movie you’ve seen since 1980 has ripped it off.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ALEXANDER

Kafka!

Shit, he’s not exactly unheard-of is he. Well he was really underrated in his lifetime? Kafka is the Einstein of writing, he changed the game and we’re still working out the implications. Maybe I just feel bad for Franz-Kafka-the-person.

No, scratch that, Tove Jansson! Tove Jansson is the lady who wrote the “Moomins” books, nobody has ever heard of her but if you actually read the books (not the comics) they are actual-goddamn-motherfuckin’-genius. Read a few and let’s, like, get high together I’ll talk your ear off about what I think is going on in them.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ALEXANDER

Right now, Sally Rooney. I read Normal People and genuinely could not see what was special about it, no matter how hard I tried. And I honestly did try. I thought it was for kids. The Ross and Rachel story, with millennials, set in Ireland. I’m even really paranoid that I might just be thinking this because she is roughly the same age as me and I’m just a sour grape, but I honestly think this fuss will blow over.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ALEXANDER

Hasek, the guy who wrote “Good Soldier Svejk”, I forget his first name. Jaroslav? Anyway, the name is not important.

INTERVIEWER

If you couldn’t tell stories or write – what would you do?

ALEXANDER

Oh man, I’d probably die. I’ve done this despite getting beaten up and laughed at and someone even burned my arm with a cigarette once for it, I used to write like it was this shameful secret thing that I just couldn’t stop doing. I’m still weirdly secretive about it for no real reason.

Or maybe I’d do philosophy. Or maths.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ALEXANDER

I play a mean jazz flute. Not even kidding.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ALEXANDER

Oh Jesus, there are so many. I once made a real fuss about paying too much for a coffee in a Starbucks in Illinois, only to realise that the list prices don’t include tax in the US. I was very jetlagged, it was 5am. I apologised profusely.

Or one time my dog stole a stranger’s shoe that the person had left on the grass behind the goal during a football game, and ran around with it all over the pitch, being chased my me and eventually everyone in both teams so they could get the game started again. He’s one slippery dog, he had the best 10 minutes of his life.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ALEXANDER

I and this other writer Zia Haider Rahman (who is way more successful, he wrote In the Light of What We Know) are starting this project where we help disadvantaged kids in London with writing. We haven’t done our first classes yet but I’m genuinely proud of where we’ve got so far. Stay tuned.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ALEXANDER

You will get everything, everything, you ever wanted when you were 14. Try not to let it crush you.

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The little-known poems of Chinua Achebe

achebe

The Nigerian novelist is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers of the past century. His debut novel, Things Fall Apart, is still the single most widely read book in African literature, despite being published in 1958.

Yet despite his fame and status, few people are familiar with his lesser-known – though certainly not ‘lesser’ in any other sense – poetry. Indeed, this was something the great man himself was well-aware of: joking in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts event that there was a “conspiracy” theory against his poetry.

Yet his love for poems and poetry dates back to the very dawn of Achebe’s career as a writer. And the very title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”.

It was only thanks to Professor Wu stumbling upon this edited recording of his nearly two-hour long Literary Arts lecture during his idle trawling through the interwebs that we have discovered this fantastic example of Achebe reading three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology ‘Collected Poems’.

Please enjoy:

Complement Achebe’s poetry with some examples of poetry from our own fabulous contributors – or contemplate the role of poets and other creatives within society, and their place in culture.

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

 

 

River of Ink – A portrait of a reluctant revolutionary

River of Ink

River of Ink, the debut novel from Paul M. M. Cooper, is set to be published by Bloomsbury on 28th January 2016 – and we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are already excited about it.

Combining the intrigue of Wolf Hall, the drama of Game of Thrones and the elegance of My Name is Red, the novel promises to be one of the most thrilling new novels published in recent times.

Madeline Miller, Orange Prize-winning author of The Song of Achilles, says: “Potent, beautiful and wholly absorbing, Cooper’s  portrait of a reluctant revolutionary had me in thrall from its first chapter. A wonderful, memorable debut.”

True power lies in the tip of a pen

All Asanka knows is poetry. From his humble village beginnings in the great island kingdom of Lanka, he has risen to the prestigious position of court poet. When Kalinga Magha, a ruthless prince with a formidable army, arrives upon Lanka’s shores, Asanka’s world is changed beyond imagining. Violent, hubristic and unpredictable, Magha usurps the throne, laying waste to all who stand in his way.

To Asanka’s horror, Magha tasks him with the translation of an epic Sanskrit poem, The Shishupala Vadha, a tale of Gods and nobles, love and revenge, which the king believes will have a civilising effect on his subjects.  Asanka has always believed that poetry makes nothing happen, but, inspired by his love for the beguiling servant girl, Sarasi, as each new chapter he writes is disseminated through the land, Asanka inadvertently finds himself at the heart of an insurgency.

True power, Asanka discovers, lies not at the point of a sword, but in the tip of a pen.

About the author

Paul M. M. Cooper was born in south London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales. He was educated at the University of Warwick and UEA, and after graduating he left for Sri Lanka to work as an English teacher.  There he returned again and again to the ruins of Polonnaruwa, learnt to speak Sinhala and to read Tamil. About River of Ink, Paul has said:

‘I was inspired by the life of Thomas Wyatt and how he used his translations of Petrarch to vent anger at Henry VIII, due to his rumoured romantic relationship with Anne Boleyn. I loved the idea of the poet using translation’s slipperiness to hide his sedition but wanted to set the story elsewhere.’

Analysis

Professor Wu says: “All of us here at Nothing in the Rulebook are eagerly anticipating the release of what appears to be a stunning debut novel from a really exciting young writer. It’s so important that, in this day and age, we continue to invest in and support aspiring writers – because it is through them that our literary canon can be expanded and taken in new and exciting directions.”

“Once again, it looks as though the University of Warwick writing programme has given us yet another fantastic novelist. Paul clearly has a fantastic literary career ahead of him. We’ll be sure to bring you a detailed interview with the author, along with a detailed book review. So watch this space, comrades!”

Now you can watch a novel being written in real time with this website

novel

Writing, we know, is a serious business. Behind the scenes, many writers admit they struggle with the daily work of writing, clocking thousands of solitary hours staring at blank pages and computer screens. Most agree on common hurdles: procrastination, writer’s block, the terror of failure that looms over any creative project and, of course, the attention sucking power of the Internet.

But it is largely thanks to the wonderful attention sucking power of the Internet that we have stumbled upon a rather intriguing writerly discovery!

A new initiative from novelist Joshua Cohen lets you watch him write his next novel, in real time, with video.

Called PCKWCK, it’s a Google Docs style app that lets you watch the novel develop from start to finish, complete with typos, re-writes and other mistakes.

writing

You can even chat with Cohen and anyone else watching, and highlighting the text in the live view sends ‘hearts’ to him, similar to Periscope (because isn’t that just adorable).

Hypnotizing to watch, or just another excuse for you to put of writing that novel you’ve been working on? You tell us! Let us know whether you think this is a cool idea, where aspiring writers can get a new insight into how a novel is written, or is it just more of the self-referential narcissism  we now expect from ‘digital writers’? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Some of the finest advice on writing – Kurt Vonnegut on stories, structure and style

vonnegut

Fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays and five works of non-fiction stand as a towering testament of Kurt Vonnegut’s ability to show us the fantastic in literature, and the extent to which books and writing can make us feel sublime. He is rightly admired by writers, readers – and most people who have had the fortune of stumbling across some of his work. Countless resources exist within the babbling expanse of the internet, based on his writing, and what he can teach us about writing – from the perspective of the writer, the reader, and the human being.

In this article, we attempt to bring some of these resources together – a mini-compendium featuring some of Vonnegut’s timeless wisdom on writing.

A first rule: no semicolons

By way of introduction, we believe it is of paramount importance to highlight Vonnegut’s self-defined “first rule” of writing. Lovers of the semi-colon should look away now.

In a delightfully dogmatic writing rule of thumb, Vonnegut offers the following advice for aspiring writers: “A First Rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All the do is show you’ve been to college.”

Leave those semicolons by the wayside, then. Now, onwards and upwards!

An old favourite: the shape of stories

A much viewed clip available on YouTube is an old favourite of the team here at Nothing in the Rulebook. In it, Kurt Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I” axis (Good Fortune and Ill Fortune), and the “B-E axis” (Beginning and Entropy). The footage, an excerpt from a much longer talk, is best accompanied by the transcript of the full talk – in ‘A man without a country’, an almost-memoir Vonnegut published in 2007.

The fundamental thesis behind the delightful graphs Vonnegut uses to depict everything from Cinderella to Kafka to Hamlet, is that, in his own words “stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”.

The shape of Cinderella

The shape of Cinderella

Yet this thesis, which he submitted in pursuit of a master’s degree, was rejected – according to the man himself – because “it was so simple, and looked like too much fun”.

We’ll let you decide for yourself what you make of it:

Interestingly, these plottable graphs have been creatively reimagined by graphic designer Maya Eilam, in new infographic format.

The importance of style

Vonnegut’s 1985 essay, “How to Write with Style”, published in the anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, begins by reprimanding what he perceives as the impersonal sterility of journalistic reporting. This fuelled by Vonnegut’s musings on the single most important element of style, which writers of all creeds must possess – a revelation of self.

“Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time […] Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.”

Choose to ignore such a warning at your peril!

Find your routine

The idea of finding your ‘routine’ as a writer is often bandied about and discussed at great lengths on various writing forums, threads, advice boards, literature festivals, creative writing seminars and classes, and so on. Writing is, after all, a discipline; and is perhaps more about working terribly hard at something and focusing intently on that, rather than simply spending your days living life as a “creative”.

Yet recognising the importance of a writing routine and actually developing one is a trick not learned easily – and made more difficult by our increasingly 24-7 lifestyles (both working and social). For inspiration, Vonnegut serves as an icon to aspire to, with his gruelling daily routine, often noted in a marvellous collection of his letters.

In one letter to his wife, Jane, dated 28 September, 1965, for example, Vonnegut describes how he would work for 90 minutes before a short break for breakfast at 8am, then continue working until 10 am. Here, he then walks into town, runs errands, swims at the local pool, returns to his house for lunch at noon, then spends the afternoon preparing for his classes (he was working at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa), then an evening spent reading and listening to jazz music. Throughout the day he does “pushups and sit-ups” and occasionally visits the cinema, where he has his heart broken.

Perhaps it’s time we all brought a little more discipline and heartbreak to our writing routines!

8 Simple tips for writing a great story

There are plenty of such #WritingTips lists floating about. But Vonnegut’s simple list on how to write a good short story deserves repeating in full:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut's signature self portrait

Vonnegut’s signature self portrait

Make your soul grow

Finally, one last, and perhaps most important piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut. One year before the author’s death, he wrote a letter in reply to a group of New York City school children who prevailed upon him to come and visit their school. His thoughtful reply provides advice that goes beyond tips for writing or reading; and instead simply teaches how to lead a good life.

A transcript of the letter here follows:

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, butrhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut