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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Creatives in profile: interview with Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith NITRB.jpg

Nothing in the Rulebook first caught up with writer and photographer Matthew Smith through a conversation about Wundor Editions – a London-based publishing house.

Since then, his first collection of poems, Sea of the Edge has been published, while he has also won second place at the London Magazine Poetry Prize and won the Orbis Readers’ Award.

His photography, meanwhile, has been included in group shows with the New York Centre for Photographic Arts at Art Santa Fe 2019, at Black Box Gallery in Portland and at the Museo di Casa Giorgione in Castelfranco. His first solo exhibition will be at the Hagi Art in Tokyo in January-February 2020.

With so much to catch up on, we thought it best to check in with Smith once more.

INTERVIEWER

When we last spoke, you told us about how your publishing house, Wundor Editions, takes its name from an old English word meaning something unimaginable – a miracle or even a monster. Is there anything you’ve seen or done since our interview that would have seen unimaginable to you at the time?

SMITH

My daughter learned to speak! In just over a year from her barely talking, we can hold conversations with her. Her one-liners are amazing. Explain that you can’t have chocolate for breakfast and she says ‘I’m not going to eat it for breakfast. I’m just going to eat it.’

INTERVIEWER

Alongside your work with Wundor Editions, you’re also a writer and a poet, a photographer and a designer. How do you balance your time between these creative projects, and do any take precedence over the others? If so, why?

SMITH

Writing fiction, poetry and taking photographs are all of equal importance to me. They each involve very different processes, so they never interfere with one another in creative terms. Timewise, I often give 2-3 hours a day to each, so even if I were to work on three projects simultaneously, that would be possible. However, I tend to be working on only two of the three at any one time.

INTERVIEWER

In October, you published your first poetry collection, Sea of the Edge. Can you tell us a little about the collection, and what it was like to write it?

SMITH

In retrospect, I can appreciate what Caroline Price wrote about the collection: ‘…the recurring search for something beyond the physical realities and constraints of everyday life …a capturing of people at a crossroads in their lives.’ It came out of a time – late 20’s, early 30’s – when I was struggling to make a foundation for my future, to ensure that whatever it was that I wanted for tomorrow, I was going to begin to secure it now. But these are often known unknowns, so this time can be very difficult. I found that poetry could empower me to be direct and personal in a way that fiction couldn’t, enabling me to drill deeply into this terrain.

INTERVIEWER

Writers often speak about a certain surreal sense of ‘coldness’ upon publishing a work that is particularly important to them. You spend so much time so close to something that is deeply personal, only to then send it off into the world for others to pick up, investigate, share around. Is this something that you’ve experienced at all?

SMITH

No not at all, it’s a happy feeling for me, one of relief and excitement. What feels a little strange is when it took you years to write a novel, and someone says they read it in one sitting.

INTERVIEWER

You won second place at the London Magazine poetry prize 2018 and won the Orbis Reader’s award in 2019. What’s it been like to see your work picked up and enjoyed so thoroughly in this way?

SMITH

Profoundly satisfying. It’s great to see that it’s resonating with readers. Department Store won the Orbis award and that is in my first collection, Sea of the Edge. Black Fire won at the London Magazine prize. It will appear in my next collection.

INTERVIEWER

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how everyone needs to have a so-called ‘side hustle’ – something you do that you love that isn’t your main source of income (but perhaps one day could be). With Wundor, Sea of the Edge and your upcoming photography exhibition at Hagi Art in Tokyo, you seem to have multiple hustles going on all at once. How do you manage it?

SMITH

I write and edit quite quickly. Photography is woven into my life more finely as I can take a camera with me anywhere. Setting up exhibitions is not as time-consuming as you might think, once the work itself is complete. Experience and a strong work ethic is essential. And you have to enjoy the business and promotional side of things to enjoy working on multiple projects, because that will expand too. Part of being an artist is being an entrepreneur. Get up early, be healthy and remove all distractions from your life, and you can do anything.

INTERVIEWER

There’s poetry to be found in photography; while poems and writing – and other art forms – can inspire a specific photograph. Where do you draw the distinction between different creative disciplines? How do they all bleed into each other?

SMITH

They have many differences and similarities. Photographs form series involving interplay between various images, ideas, tones and textures. Poems come together in a similar way to make collections. Novels are bound by one overarching story, which can feel stifling at times, due to the need to commit to it over years. That’s partly why my novel The Waking and the new novel I’m working on now have so many sub-stories within them – it keeps the narrative dynamic and it keeps me inspired.

INTERVIEWER

In our last conversation you spoke about the plethora of creative work out there that is waiting to be discovered by publishers, agents, and others within the publishing industry. But is the quantity of excellent creative work in a way its undoing? Has the value of the written word been devalued by the internet – where words and ideas are so freely available and abundant?

SMITH

We’re all learning how to return to sanity in terms of our use of the internet, without ditching it, because in essence we know it’s a good thing. We don’t want to go around London with an A-Z again, Google Maps is helpful. Privilege in the future in terms of tech will be less about what smartphone you have and more about whether you were taught how to filter online content so that you could benefit from it and not become overwhelmed by it, misled by it or become addicted to it.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your work, are there any particularly exciting projects we should keep an eye out for?

SMITH

Yes, I will be exhibiting with the New York Centre for Photographic Arts at Art Santa Fe in July this year. You mentioned my solo photography exhibition at Hagi Art in Tokyo, which will run from January-February 2020. The series from that exhibition, Chora, was taken in London, but the images were inspired in part by a lifelong love of Japanese art and photography, so it’s found the right home. The specific dates will go up on my website and Instagram soon. I’m also working on my second novel and my second collection of poems.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite author/poet/photographer?

SMITH

Marilynne Robinson / Robert Frost / Masao Yamamoto

INTERVIEWER

Can you name a book you love, and a book you hate?

SMITH

Housekeeping is my favourite novel. No hate!

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

SMITH

Critically acclaimed is the ideal! But a classic is a classic, regardless of how many readers it has.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

SMITH

Dario Argento is one of my favourite directors. There’s very little serious attention given to his work, as he was largely working in the horror genre, but his best work is worthy of the highest level of analysis. He tells mercurial stories that slip away from you just as you think you have them figured out. Critics invariably fall for the false endings he creates. I’m thinking in particular of Deep Red, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the best of the giallo films. I’m not so keen on stuff like Suspiria.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

SMITH

Tupac.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

SMITH

Polo G’s first album is incredible. He’s a young rapper from Chicago who seems to have arrived fully-formed as an artist. Robert Wyatt is one of my favourite singer-songwriters. He’s still not widely known. I’ve been listening to Shleep recently. ‘Maryan’ is a masterpiece. ‘Was a Friend’ is one of the most unsettling songs I ever expect to ever hear.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to choose one artistic discipline to stick to, which would it be?

SMITH

I’ve always seen writing and making pictures as part of the same thing, so I can’t choose.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

SMITH

I can speak and write some Japanese. To take it further seems difficult without being based there.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

SMITH

Pass!

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

SMITH

My daughter, who is 2 and already running the show.

INTERVIEWER

If you had one rule to live by, what would it be?

SMITH

Be yourself.

 

 

Beyond Game of Thrones: in search of the ideal modern female heroine

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Ever since its inception, the gothic novel has been a curious mixture of over-exaggerated cliché and transgressive boundary pushing. On the one hand, the gothic novel has dealt liberally in tropes such as vampires, bloodlust, disembodied souls and wandering corpses, but it has also explored liminal states such as dreams and the unconscious, and through various literary devices, the very notion of boundaries itself.

Consistent with this characterisation, the women in gothic novels have been either two dimensional ciphers, hysterical screaming maidens in disarray as they flee through the underground mazes of castles and graveyards, or more complex heroines with a depth of passion and self- awareness that transcends their socio-historical situation. This characterisation has often depended on whether the novel in question is penned by a male or female author.

In fact, female authored gothic novels such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and even Angela Carters modern classics from her short story collection The Bloody Chamber, use the themes and conventions such as madness and fairy tale, to explore traditional restrictions around women’s roles in society and along the way, often subvert these radically.

Using fantasy, fairy tale and fugue states, dreams and dissociation, the writers of female gothic novels present us with alluring and engaging worlds within which women act out powerful new roles and dynamics. Indeed, the ubiquitous modern phenomenon of the hit series Game of Thrones uses gothic and fantasy elements in its depiction of the powerful heroines at the heart of its narrative. Through dreams and prophecies, mythical beasts, all-consuming emotions and elemental imagery, the female characters are defined and reinforced with powerful iconography.

I use Game of Thrones as an example here because it is a modern hit with global audiences, which has reverberated strongly through the collective psyche, and yet it is set in a world distinct from our own, a world with powerful women wrapped up in mystique and magic, but women who enact their own agency. For the most part, Game of Thrones, with its gothic elements and yet supremely modern depiction of the female psyche represents a compelling model for how female characters could be represented in contemporary fiction.

Of course, in Game of Thrones, and also in classic female gothic novels, women have to struggle against oppressive patriarchal structures that restrict the expression of their power and agency. This is somewhat less of a factor in the modern world, but it still exists, especially in some cultures, where women have less of a voice.

In my upcoming debut novel Never So Perfect set in London amongst a glamorous coterie of British Asian characters, I always had in mind the female gothic and its conventions as I developed the narrative of my heroine Mia. She is also somebody who has had a varied and complex journey, but the way her story reaches back into a dark past, and how this is then set against a glittering present that sometimes seems surreal and dreamlike to her, was my homage to the female gothic genre that has captivated my imagination ever since I first encountered it.

Delving into fugue states and exploring the boundaries of sanity in my own novel, and the way in which my heroine emerges from all this, fragile and yet powerful, transgressive and irreverent, with humanity and also humour, represents to me, my ideal of the modern female heroine – with a dash of gothic sensibility.

About the author of this post

Sobia QuaziSobia Quazi has been writing on and off since she was a young child. Her early poems were published in a variety of poetry magazines, including The Frogmore Papers and Smoke. Eventually, she executed her escape from medical school and did her PhD in English Literature, dissecting a different kind of dead body, the spectral women of gothic novels and Japanese horror. She is still enthralled by all things dark and gothic, by the intricate webs of intertextuality, and by the transformative power of storytelling. Her first novel, Never So Perfect has been picked up by award-winning publishing company, Unbound, and is currently seeking crowdfunding. She tweets as @QuaziSobia

 

 

New comic, The Ogxcun Myth, set for launch

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A new, weekly, seven-part story launches this week.

Entitled,  The Ogxcun Myth, it combines the talents of writer Joshua Spiller (Symbolism Rewired, Time Fracture!), artist Kishore Mohan (Head Above Water, Gutters) and letterer Bolt-01 (FutureQuake, Zarjaz).

As well as the preview art above and below, here’s the synopsis:

In a baroque palace, primitive automatons surround their human captives for an unknown purpose.

Meanwhile, in the distant past, a lone warrior treks through a snowy wasteland that resembles the world’s beginning, or its end. Soon, he will face the Ogxcun: a trio of terrifying beings that scent guilt and wreak vengeance upon the “wicked”, creating a cosmos where the good who feel guilt are punished, while the gleefully malicious roam free.

A strange fairytale meeting of two cultures that could never have crossed paths in actuality, ‘The Ogxcun Myth’ features epic fights… experimentations with the comic-book form… and a shocking and intense finale that will tie the two timelines together.

The universe will never be the same after this tale…

The 21-page online comic is a self-contained story, and will be serialised three pages a week for seven weeks.

Its first issue is now live.

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What’s more – if you subscribe to online anthology Aces Weekly for just £1 per week, then over the next seven weeks, you will get:

  • Full access to The Ogxcun Myth as it unfolds
  • PLUS over 100 pages of other comics stories by other creators – all serialised simultaneously and available for you to enjoy online whenever you want, through your tablet, laptop or desktop

It all comes from an award-winning publisher, in a neat package at www.acesweekly.co.uk/shop.

If the philosophers had been dogs

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The canine philosophers Sun Shitzu and Bernard the Saint: some of the true masters of philosophy whose ideas have finally been revealed in ‘Philosophers’ Dogs‘ – a satirical, illustrated book created by Samuel Dodson and Rosie Benson. (Images courtesy of Rosie Benson/Unbound).

Is it possible to be a good dog? Do we catch balls of our own volition? Or are our decisions to eat the rotten apples, to bark at the cat, predetermined? What is it to know that you have behaved well rather than merely believe it?

These are just some of the questions that promise to be answered in a new creative project from award-winning publishers, Unbound. Written by Samuel Dodson and illustrated by Rosie Benson, ‘Philosophers’ Dogs‘ is the ground-breaking textbook that will shake the very foundations of both western and eastern philosophy by revealing a truth that has hitherto been kept secret: that all human philosophers stole their ideas from their dogs.

Featuring beautiful illustrations alongside thorough, meticulous research and historical fact*, the book follows the philosophic trials, tribulations and tail-wagging of the dogs owned by famous philosophers and essayists, and presents to readers the unadulterated, real histories of the true philosophical masters of enlightenment.

*Not necessarily historical or fact.

Feast your eyes on the true masters of philosophy

A vital companion to the bookshelves of all philosophy students, teachers, dog lovers and, indeed, anyone with any interest in THE TRUTH, Philosophers’ Dogs also reveals the original, genuine quotes hitherto (wrongly) attributed to minds such as Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, David Foster Wallace, Socrates and Simone De Beauvoir.

Nothing in the Rulebook are proud to present here, to you, dear readers, some of the images that can be found in the book. Here below, you can see the real depiction of ancient Greece that Raphael so diabolically painted in his artwork ‘The School of Athens’ – as it truly was.

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Raphael can eat his heart out. In this picture we see an illustrated vision of the famous Athenian case against Socrates’s dog, Droolius Caesar, who argued that he could not possibly know anything about who pooed on the rug. Image copyrighted by Rosie Benson

Spot the difference? Compare this accurate representation of reality, above, drawn by Rosie Benson, to this deceitful painting by Raphael, below – who failed to include any of the canine companions we owe so much to. 

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Or why not check out the following illustration of the historic scene where Karl Marx’s dog, Karl Barks, finally broke free from his leash to teach canines across the world that they were truly in control of the means of walkies.

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“Dogs control the means of walkies” – Karl Barks. Image copyright of Rosie Benson.

Unbound: liberating ideas

Unbound have been making waves in the publishing sector since they launched – a crowdfunding-based, selective publisher who exploded onto the scene as a suite of their books won or were shortlisted for countless prestigious awards, including the Man Booker Prize. Picking up diverse titles that range from comprehensive ‘rhyming dictionaries’ through to short stories about a small town in Dorset, England, they have played a key role in transforming the publishing sector through crowdfunding.

Their model enables them to pick up and support projects by new authors and artists – something that precious few mainstream publishers seem to be interested in doing in this day and age.

Why not check Unbound – and Philosophers’ Dogs – out, using our exclusive Nothing in the Rulebook discount code to get a whopping 25% off. Simply pledge for a reward that you want, and use the code NITR to get your discount.

What the authors say

We couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get a quote from the creative duo behind ‘Philosophers’ Dogs’ – not least because Samuel Dodson, the author, is also a part of the Nothing in the Rulebook creative collective! On writing the book, he says:

“In making this book I owe a huge amount to my early philosophical teachers, my Lab-Collie cross, Layla, who taught me that not all tennis balls need to be chased, and my border terrier, Marnie, who showed me that obeying orders isn’t always strictly necessary (especially if food is involved). Having grown up with dogs, it quickly became apparent to me and my sister, Rosie, (whose incredible illustrations in this book blow my mind) that the real masters of philosophy in the world were of the four-legged variety; and so Philosophers’ Dogs was born.

It’s hugely exciting to be launching the project – but also incredibly terrifying. Crowdfunding looks like it has the potential to break down the old barriers that existed within the publishing sector, but, given my particular English sensibilities towards being ever so self-effacing and modest, it doesn’t make it any less difficult or awkward to ask people to financially support the project! Still, the fact that people can pick up original art prints, personalised ‘dog-rees’ for your pooch, as well as unique ‘paw-traits’ of your dog as rewards for pledging does certainly make a huge difference. So I feel exceedingly lucky to be on this creative journey with Rosie. I just hope I can do her proud and we can raise the funds we need for the book. It would be so wonderful to see our name’s side by side on bookshelves and coffee tables.”

His sister, Rosie, says:

“It feels like a funny thing to call myself an artist as for many years it hasn’t been my main source of income, as I guess is true for many artists. It seems more appropriate to say that I’ve been artist in my heart, and sometimes in my head, for my entire life.

I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to collaborate with my brother on his wonderful book.

Dogs have been part of the family my entire life, with one particularly special furry friend ‘Hector’, a beautiful, loyal and dependable Dalmatian. Although he has departed this mortal coil I know he would want me to do my best, to do justice for all the dogs out there whose philosophical ideas have been ignored and stolen for far too long.”

Pledge to support the book with a Nothing in the Rulebook Discount

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen and read here, Nothing in the Rulebook are pleased to have teamed up with Unbound to offer readers a 25% discount. Just use the code NITR and pledge to support the project today.

https://unbound.com/books/philosophers-dogs/

 

 

 

 

 

‘It nearly killed me writing it but it’s also the reason I’m alive,’ – Marcus Zusak on ‘Bridge of Clay’, ‘The Book Thief’ and writing 1.9 words a day

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Nothing in the Rulebook’s Ellen Lavelle caught up with best-selling author Markus Zusak at The Collection Museum in Lincoln.

‘I’ve written four books that mean something to me and two that mean everything to me,’ Markus Zusak says. The two books that mean everything to him are The Book Thief and Bridge of Clay – the latter took him thirteen years to complete. ‘It might be time again to write one that just means something,’ he adds.

It seems unlikely, however, as Zusak doesn’t seem able to do anything without doing it well, giving it absolutely everything he has and getting a kick out of the challenge. Even the talk he gives to the crowded auditorium of The Collection Museum in Lincoln is expertly constructed. At first, he tells a funny story from his own childhood, then he explains to the audience why he told it in that order, why he drew our attention to his brother’s red Esky cooler, the upside-down paint cans they sat on to eat their lunch. Why do these details matter?

‘You want people to believe you,’ Zusak says. ‘If you can give them the detail, it convinces people you were there.’

Every story is two stories, he explains. You tell the top layer, while dipping into the bottom layer – the backstory – to add emotional weight. We cared in the moment when young Markus had to confess what he’d done to his dad because we knew his dad yelled at him sometimes when he messed up at work. How did we know this? We knew because Zusak, the grown-up writer, paused the story to relay the time when he painted himself into a corner of a cupboard and had to wait an hour and a half before coming out, so he wouldn’t mess up the paint. We know because Zusak, bestselling author, dipped into the bottom layer.

He’s this good because he’s had a lot of practise. Before going onstage, I interviewed Zusak in the office below the museum, asked how he started out. The first story he ever wrote was about a boy with a cyst in his head that could explode at any time.

‘I stopped at eight pages and thought it could be entered into a competition for the worst book ever written,’ he tells me, laughing. ‘The first thing I finished was when I was eighteen. I wrote my first book and that got rejected by five publishers, which was good – I was lucky that it did. If it hadn’t, I would look back with even more embarrassment at my earlier books. Now, though, I look back at my first published books kind of happily because I think enough time goes by and you can forgive yourself for whatever you didn’t quite get right, all the things you overdid.’

Zusak’s first ever reading was in the year 2000, in a library in Margaret River, Western Australia. Not only did no one come but the librarian made him do the reading anyway, just for her. It’s the unexpected that makes a story work, Zusak explains. When he tells people this story now, the zero-attendance fact gets their sympathy but it’s the sadism of the librarian that really makes them laugh.

As a young writer, Zusak gave talks in schools across Australia in order to make money – telling a good story was essential for his survival.

‘Those boys,’ he says. ‘They really want to kill you.’

It was their sports hour or their lunch break Zusak’s lecture consumed and he knew he had to make it worth their while. It was during a school workshop that he first came up with one of the core features of The Book Thief. In a writing exercise with a class, he described the sky in three colours, used each colour to represent a death.

‘I just knew it was Death talking,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t this profound, deep thing – it was quite simple.’

At the same time, Zusak was writing a short story set in contemporary Australia, about a girl stealing books. He pulled the two ideas together and, inspired by the stories told by his parents about their childhoods in Austria and Germany during the second world war, set the book in Nazi Germany.

Published in 2005, The Book Thief was an international bestseller, translated into more than thirty languages. It was adapted into a film in 2013, starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Zusak suggested the filmmakers cast Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, the main character, which they did, but apart from that, Zusak says he had very little to do with the film. There are elements about it he likes, some he doesn’t.

‘Film people are different,’ he says, darkly.

Released in 2013, the film went into production exactly halfway through the thirteen-year break between The Book Thief’s publication and the release of Zusak’s latest, Bridge of Clay.

‘It nearly killed me writing it,’ he says, ‘but it’s also why I’m alive.’

Zusak never imagined anyone would read The Book Thief and, liberated by this belief, was able to write it exactly the way he wanted, in only one year. After its immense success he knew that, whatever he did next, he would have a lot of readers. He revisited Bridge of Clay’s beginning ‘thousands of times’, rewriting it over and over again with different narrators. He likes to write in the morning, at the kitchen table, and when he once asked his daughter if she could eat her cereal quieter because he was trying to work, she snorted.

‘You?’ she said. ‘Work?

This was still ringing in his ears when he finished the book and so he worked out his daily word average for the last thirteen years: 1.9 words a day.

‘Not even two,’ he laughs.

It was a frustrating, painful process but Zusak believes that these long years with the same book, the same characters, made it better.

‘The more time you spend with a book, the more you can make good decisions about it,’ he says. ‘I normally say you want to spend enough time with the book, working on it, making notes for it, writing it, that you feel like you can wake up every day and just roll out of bed into the world of the book.’

But what is it like to roll out of bed the morning after you finish the book? What does it feel like when that world, the world you’ve been in for thirteen years, is sealed off, no longer there?

‘Everyone thinks you should feel really happy but you don’t,’ Zusak says. ‘You feel a bit flat. You’ve just been kind of working for the World Championship of Yourself and then it’s over. You’re relieved, don’t get me wrong – you wouldn’t go back in – but you’re still wondering how you’re going to live without it. That’s how you write the next book.’

It’s clearly a joy, though – anyone can see that. The whole time he’s talking, Zusak is smiling.

‘I say it’s like climbing a mountain but there’s a sandpit at the top,’ he says. ‘You don’t get to play without doing the work.’

‘Playing’ is writing parts that are fun or inserting lines from real life into the story. On a hot day while writing Bridge of Clay, Zusak was cleaning his car with his shirt off. His son, then four, rode up on his trike and stopped.

‘Pop!’ he said. ‘What’re you doing out here in just your nipples?’

That’s in the book. But now the world of Bridge of Clay is over, sealed off, and Zusak is breaking his way into the next one.

‘I’ve got ideas, a few little things,’ he said. ‘I don’t guard my ideas. I was talking somewhere else last night and I told the audience the idea. I just said ‘Don’t write it because you’ll probably write it faster than I can.’ That’s the thing, though – I could give everyone the exact same idea and none of us would do it the same way. We’ll see.’ He smiles. ‘At the moment I’m still writing the first sentence.’

About the interviewer

Ellen Lavelle

Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

A poetic conversation with Frank Prem

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Frank Prem: a storytelling poet. 

Frank Prem has been a storytelling poet for forty years. When not writing or reading his poetry to an audience, he fills his time by working as a psychiatric nurse.

He has been published in magazines, zines and anthologies, in Australia and in a number of other countries, and has both performed and recorded his work as spoken word poetry.

He and his wife live in the beautiful township of Beechworth in northeast Victoria, Australia.

Nothing in the Rulebook – and particularly Professor Wu – have been fans of Prem’s work for some time, which is available online and via his poetry blog – as well as Youtube. So it was great fun to catch up with him and quickly get down to the bones of what makes a poet tick.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

I Live in a small town in North East Victoria (Australia) called Beechworth. This is the town I grew up in back in the 1960s and 70s, before moving away to the city for my middle adult years. I returned to the town about 10 years ago, and have settled back into rural life.

The town itself is well known, in a small way, for three things. It is a well preserved gold rush town. It has associations with Australia’s most renowned bushrangers (Ned Kelly and the Kelly Gang), and it has a tourism favourite in The Beechworth Bakery, which is known far and wide.

Professionally, I am a Psychiatric Nurse, and have worked in or around Psychiatric Services for forty odd years now – almost as long as I’ve been a poet.

My wife and I live a creatively rich life in our small town and, despite putting myself about in interviews like this and in whatever media I can entice to publicise my work, I consider myself quite a private person.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

Terms like ‘first love’ and words like ‘passion’ aren’t quite accurate in defining the relationship I have with my writing. I have always been a word person – whether reading avidly, or writing, but with writing it is not so much a thing that I sought to do, as a thing that was required of me.

I mean that I don’t think there is much in the way of choice available to someone like myself. I simply wouldn’t be who and what I believe myself to be, if it weren’t for writing, and in my case, writing free verse poetry, in particular,

I reserve passion for my football team, or perhaps some aspect of the garden.

Writing is more like the breath I take.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and poetry?

PREM

Going back to when I started writing in a journal as a teenager, I used words and pen as a way to make sense of my world. This continued into my career in Psychiatry, where much of what I encountered was incomprehensible to me, even though I had childhood associations with the institution in which I trained as a nurse through my parents employment, still it was bizarre and inexplicable to me.

Over time, I found that my interest branched out into many different areas, and gradually I arrived at a point where I felt (and still do) that every single thought, idea, sight or sense that I encounter is potentially worthy of being captured in a poem, that in turn, should be able to be made worthy of being read and appreciated.

I felt and believed that all this was in my grasp and power to achieve.

An example, Professor. On a particular occasion, driving a country road, I had that sense of well being that led me to actually say to myself ‘I could write something amazing about the very next thing I see …’

Well, driving around the corner, the thing I saw was a row of dead foxes in various stages of decay, and strung up on a paddock fence.

Not the subject I might have hoped for, but exactly the test of hubris that I deserved.

Did I write something? Yes I did. Was it worthy, in the way I suggested above? Hard to say, but, fortunately, I can let you decide by posting a link to the poem – a conversation with three foxes – here: https://wp.me/p7yTr8-1MC.

I don’t know if I succeeded but I was quite proud of the poem when finished, and I’ve tried to avoid such extravagant thinking since.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

PREM

I have a reasonably clear inspiration for my writing and what I attempt to achieve with it, but the source dates back to a couple of writers born in the 1860s – Henry Lawson and A.B. (the Banjo) Patterson.

My writing is nothing like theirs. They wrote poetry in galloping rhyme, and Lawson wrote many short stories. Lawson was an alcoholic associated mostly with the bush, Patterson was a city lawyer who wrote of the bush.

The reason I find them inspirational is that they wrote at a time when words were not easily accessed by a largely illiterate populace outside the cities, and yet their work was memorised and recited as news and as entertainment.

I have a vision that recurs of one person who could read, holding the Bulletin Magazine in his hand and reading aloud, while a group of men stand around listening, with lips moving as they try to memorise the verse for repetition later. Perhaps asking for the piece to be read aloud again to make sure.

Fanciful? Probably, but that image informs the aims I have for my work. I want it to be able to be read and understood. I want to take complex ideas and present them in a way that lets my next door neighbour, or the greengrocer, or a stranger in the street know exactly what I’m on about and be able to form a response without difficulty.

You may get a sense that I have a few concerns about published contemporary poetry. you’d be right. I have no time for the deliberately obscure. I think it does the reader of poetry (and therefore poetry itself) a grave injustice.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

PREM

I’ve deliberately avoided formal instruction in the black arts of writing and of writing poetry.

My first reason is because I’ve always had a belief that only I could write the work of only me. I have been inordinately concerned that reading others and formal instruction would dilute my own voice. When I finally discovered that I had a unique voice (someone pointed it out to me in a poem), it became the most precious thing in my repertoire and I would not risk it.

A second reason though, (and I apologise in advance to any who may feel offended) is that I have not trusted the teachers of creative writing programs to know what they were doing. Harsh, yes, but it seemed to me that what I saw as product of such instruction was largely shallow cleverness dressed up in fashionable and exclusive attire. Very little uniqueness that was capable of communicating to everyday folk, who I saw and see as the proper main audience for poetry.

Having said that, I was strongly encouraged by an English teacher in my Year 9 many moons ago who marked my poem higher than neighbouring essays. I haven’t looked back.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

PREM

Professor, this is an excellent question, I think. I now understand that , in my own case, I have been a writer forever. That is, a person who creates works – whether they be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose – by writing.

I have drawers full of manuscripts created while I was a writer.

So. If you write, you are a writer.

However, being a writer is actually the easy part of the writing pursuit.

When you create a book, you become an author. Wherever you may appear, you are representing your book as its author. Being a writer is a mere prelude to being your book.

Becoming a publisher (my Wild Arancini Press is a single author publisher) is another step again. Followed by becoming a promotor of the book you are author of. These are work tasks that go with being a professional in the industry of writing.

The simple creativity of just being a writer becomes a bit of a nostalgic dream, if we’re not careful.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

I have two answers, Professor. One is a little more boring than the other and both might seem a little shallow.

My first three collections (two published, the third starting now) are written in a memoir style. My research has been to live the events that I relate and turn them into a form that is readable and attractive to readers and listeners.

  • With Small Town Kid, I walked the town again, and went out of my way to have some conversations with folk who could inform and correct my views before I made an ass of myself with them.
  • Devil In The Wind came from direct experience on the periphery of the fires, conversation with fire fighters, news (TV, radio, papers), and finally the Royal Commission we held to Inquire into the circumstances of the fires. Plus all the empathy I could muster.
  • The New Asylum will be the third collection, dealing with my lifetime involvement with psychiatry from a child through to the present day. Primarily the material in this collection will be direct experience.

The second part of the answer relates more to my more fictional work, which is yet to see the light of day. This work includes simply hundreds of poems directly inspired from reading the French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard who died in the 1960s. I can’t begin to tell the influence reading this mans translated works has had on me as a writer.

I also have a speculative fiction manuscript that is perhaps more surreal in nature. That came from a given theme, sustained by a piece of music playing in my head throughout the writing.

So, true answer on research? Not much, I’m afraid.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

PREM

Ethics in my own writing is not something I think about a lot, but I believe it is a valid question.

I put great store in my writing having recognisable qualities, so that there is little likelihood of mistaking mine for someone else’s. That includes content, however, and I feel a responsibility to give my reader not, necessarily, what they expect, but to challenge them within some nebulous parameters that are clearly consistent with me, the writer they thought they were getting

I feel the need to shape any controversy in such a way that it represents, rather than dictates or argues.

Without shying away from a topic, I don’t want to be in the position where I am running a partisan or shallow line on a controversial subject.

I am most comfortable, I think, in representing and interpreting ideas and philosophies poetically than in arguing a position.

INTERVIEWER

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

PREM

My current work in progress has a working title ‘stories of the somme’. I am taking photographs from World War 1 – Australian Soldiers at the Somme and the Western Front, and using what empathy I have to allow each picture to tell me a story.

I hope to publish these in due course, providing I can raise the cash to purchase high quality photographic prints. They are not cheap.

I have been amazed by the capacity of these 100 year old images to move me, and of the poems and pictures together to affect readers emotionally.

Here are links to two of the sample poems posted on my blog page:

  1. Ypres (24): munition wraiths https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76Q
  2. Ypres (16): within the walls (while we lived) https://wp.me/p7yTr8-76s

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

PREM

Robin Hobb – Farseer books

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

PREM

Emmylou Harris – US Country singer.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

PREM

Take your pick. Contemporary seems to be about hype.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

PREM

It’s going back a bit, but H.E. Bates (Darling Buds of May etc) and Damon Runyan (Guys and Dolls) shouldn’t be forgotten.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

PREM

I play ukulele in my wife Leanne’s music classes and like to sing – mainly country songs.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

PREM

Early on. I was meant to say thank you, but I actually gave a rambling speech full of nonsense. Had to get dragged away from the podium. Have never forgotten, never repeated.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

PREM

I think I’m most proud of my wife Leanne’s endeavours and achievements in art and other creative endeavours, including music teaching.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

PREM

Don’t be in a hurry. Everything is material, every moment is developmental.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

PREM

I became my mountain, became me.

Writing Dorset dialect: a treasury of words

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William Barnes: a poet plucked from obscurity in a Dickens-like-happy-ending who wrote the Glossary of Dorset Dialect – which holds the key to understanding terms such as ‘ninnywatch’ and ‘Dumbledore’.

Some years ago, I got it into my head to set a story in the last years of peace before railways arrived ruined everything. As ideas go, it was predicated on some fairly heavy assumptions, but it had the advantage of being inspired by a pub. The pub in question is about 8 miles outside Wimborne Minster and is called The World’s End. So my first assumption was that there was once a time when you could maybe walk that far out of town but beyond that — well, that was the End Of The World, so everything beyond it was a mysterious realm of weirdness. And then, I assumed, the railways arrived and everything started to become ever more mundane.

What happened next was that I started doing research and my vision of a idyllic rural past collapsed like a sodden haystack. Railways came to Wimborne in 1847, around about the time the corn laws were making food prohibitively expensive, the enclosures acts were removing access to the common land that ordinary folk used as pasture; poor laws were damning struggling paupers to the workhouse, and the gradual mechanisation of farming was destroying all rural employment. I learned about the levels of infant mortality, lack of sanitation and the rates of emigration and I gradually realised that there really wasn’t that much for the railways to ruin.

But there was one discovery that cheered me up. I got my hands on a copy of William Barnes’ Glossary of Dorset Dialect. Originally published in 1867, this glossary is a rarity because Barnes was a complete one-off. He was in the unique position of having been born to a family of relatively poor farmers and subsequently receiving an education. This meant he grew up learning to talk with the local dialect, but then, because he was clearly too fragile for farming and showed some acumen at ‘book-work’ he was packed off to school and had the Dickens-happy-ending sort of good-fortune to be plucked from obscurity and sent to university. There can have been very few historical figures to have spoken Greek, Latin and fluent Dorset. And Barnes — bless him — he wrote it all down.

Readers would be spirited into a long-lost world of cider, button-making and eccles cakes…”

My first intention was to use Barnes’ Glossary to give my story flavour. I thought of it as a sort of linguistic spice rack. I would write Dorset characters and have them use a few authentic phrases and you, dear readers, would be spirited into a long-lost world of cider, button-making and eccles cakes. It was an irresistible idea because the phrases in the Glossary were delicious. There were just so many definitions that sang about the world they came from. The first one I employed properly was the word brags. To make one’s brags is to boast. So I got to write the sentence, “He was making his brags”.

Next came the old Dorset intensifiers. Some of these are still in use, others should be revived. Girt is still understood to mean ‘large’ and Banging makes it larger. A  banging girt bridge is larger than a girt bridge. It could also be Brushing, of course, which means much the same as Banging or even Lincen or Trimming. Although, whether a trimming girt hare is bigger than a lincen girt hare or smaller than a banging girt hare or a brushing girt hare is anyone’s guess—but it is clear that Dorset folk did not lack ways of saying that things were large. What sort of things would they have been talking about? It doesn’t much matter because anything complicated would have been called tackle. A Dorset man with aspirations to become a sailor and climb a ship’s mast would have wanted to get a-top all that tackle. That is, of course, unless he or she found the prospect a little intimidating, in which case, he might have called it a turk of a thing. There’s a self-confidence in this sort of one-word reductivism; a hint of humour too.

What I love most about these evocative phrases is how much they reveal a lot about the world they come from. What do you know — immediately — about a world in which it is an insult to call someone Cow-heart? If nothing else, it says they knew cows, and didn’t hold them in high esteem. And maybe it also reveals the true origins of the term ‘coward’ (more conventional etymology has it from the Old French couard — something to do with the tail).

There’s plenty to be learned from other Dorset insults and the things they insulted. Gawk-Hammer is a fool’s bladder, the implied meaning being ‘empty-head’ while the simple term Gawk, meaning ‘fool,’ is still in use through the phrase gawking (staring mindlessly). My personal favourite is Dough-beaked. It doesn’t take much interpretation to understand that a bird with a beak make of dough isn’t too useful. I also love the word, ninny, and its more capacious cousin, ninnywatch. Barnes’ explanation for this term is a feast:

“The following is a bit of talk about the word Ninnywatch between a worthy Dorset gentleman and two of his parish folks: “There see; the policeman told I somewhat that put me in a terrible ninny-watch.” And what’s that?” says I. “What does it mean?” “I d’know ‘tain’t got no meaning, sir; ‘tis only one they words we poor folk do use.” “Old P. tells me it means ‘trouble’” ”Trouble sir?  Don’t mean trouble no more than do mean Richard.” “Well then, how do you use it?” “Well, sir, if I’ve a-seed anybody in a-bit of a bumble about his work—a-peeping about—in a kind of stud, like—I’ve a-heard em say “What be you got a ninny-watchen about?” Ninny watch is most likely a “ninny’s outlook” as for he knows not what.”

There’s lots to that paragraph. You might have spotted the word ‘somewhat’ which is said, ‘zummit’, and sounds like ill-educated mispronunciation of ‘something’. But as Barnes points out, Dorset is logical and consistent in its structure. It uses somewhat alongside somewhen and somewhere, making conventional English seem the less consistent.

The Glossary contains more vignettes like the one above and they are revealing to a level that single-term definitions cannot achieve. Here’s another example; it is an explanation that accompanies the term ‘Dewbit’:

“The first meal in the morning, not so substantial as a regular breakfast. The agricultural labourers, in some parts of Dorsetshire, were accustomed to say that in harvest time they required seven meals in the day: dewbit, breakfast, nuncheon, cruncheon, nammit, crammit, and supper.”

Eagle-eyed readers will recognise this from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in which one of the hobbits says much the same about the number of meals in a day. This link is unsurprising given that Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and it is evident that many of the obscure terms in Barnes’ Glossary can be traced to Anglo-Saxon roots.

There are other echoes of The Shire in Barnes’ Dorset. It has that same sense of homeliness and good humour. This is a people for whom a bumble-bee was a Dumbledore, a deep laugh was a hobble, a short laugh was a sniggle and who would label someone colourless as Dunducky.  If you were lazy you’d be slack-twisted, if you were brave they’d shout Good Jeminee! if you were strong, they’d say spry, or if heavy, they’d say soggy. And yes, soggy also meant damp and sinking, with the meeting of meaning around the notion of something being pulled down—sinking through weight or ‘sogginess’. It was a world in which the empty-headed were mocked, and concerns focussed on harvests, plants, animal disease and birds; there are innumerable references to birds.

For a word-obsessed writer it was all too much fun. However, after shamelessly cherry-picking Barnes’ Glossary, I started to be dissatisfied with the dialogue that I was writing because, even though it had a good Dorset tone to it, there wasn’t that truly authentic ring you’d find in Barnes’ poems. At first I told myself this was because I always veered away from phonetic spelling, but eventually I came to realise there were rules I was simply not following. I was using individual terms as spice, but the overall recipe was still modern. This revelation came with the words en and em.

En and em are not random terms, nor are they, as it first appears, phonetic representations of bad diction. They are particles of grammar. En is Dorset for him. And em is Dorset for them. So a Dorset woman would say “Don’t think that of en.” Importantly, Barnes insists these terms have good provenance. He traces them to Fresian and makes the link to the original language of the Angles, before it was corrupted by those uncouth marauding Saxons. En and em are grammatically correct within their own sphere. And there’s more to it than that. There are verb forms that follow Dorset rules. Much like the North German and Southern Scandinavian languages that would have given us the English of the Angles, Dorset has a strange sort of preterite and a complex present tense. So in Dorset, the verb is adjusted if it relates to a plural subject. One bird flies, but a flock of birds do fly. A man runs, but men do run. And the habitual context in which I do write is not the same as singular instance when I am a-writing.

With these different (and in some instances, complex) rules in mind, Barnes has no patience for the stereotype of the dim-witted yokel. His poetry champions Dorset dialect as almost a distinct language, but he also illustrates its deep roots in the Germanic and Norse origins of pre-Norman peasantry. This is not an ill-educated population so much as a society that retains a language (and therefore, presumably aspects of a culture) that was thought dead 800 years previously.

All this seemed to suggest that my original premise for writing about a world that ended eight miles outside the town was not as dough-beaked as I’d thought. For the language to have survived that long, the culture, the mentality and the manner of thinking of the people must also have survived—largely by them just staying put. When the Normans arrived they took control, but in the very act of doing so, they ensured the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture because the farm-workers were forced to stay in their villages. I was spurred towards deeper research.

The greatest extremity of my adventures into Dorset dialect was a teach-yourself course for learning Anglo-Saxon. Yes, such a thing exists and no, I didn’t become fluent. Not even sub-GCSE level. But I gained another insight into the style of thinking. Anglo-Saxon has its own thought-style. A way of melding terms to create evocative new phrases (called Kennings). It was a common Anglo-Saxon poet’s device to replace simple words, like ship, with something much more evocative, like wave-floater (wægflota). A dull Anglo-Saxon would say ‘the sea’, whereas a poet would call it a ‘whale’s way’ (hwæl-weġ). I brought a halt to my teach-yourself-Anglo-Saxon adventure because it became clear that while it was fun and helped me get more from Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, it wasn’t the same as learning Dorset dialect. the dialect took a form of its own

So I returned to William Barnes, immersed myself in his records, and eventually started writing. My aim was to create a sort of ‘restored’ Dorset dialect. I couldn’t re-create it, anymore than you can recreate an authentic 19th century farm, but I could manage a sort of restoration. Did I get it right? Maybe. You could spend a life-time studying and still not manage to quite get there. But I got close enough, I think.

Fourteen

The fourteen stories of ‘Crow Court‘ (Unbound) are steeped in Dorset dialect – pick yourselves up a copy using the discount code RULEBOOK to be immersed in a world of banging girt stories.

And I can tell you why I think that. The simple story I had originally planned grew larger and larger until it formed a whole novel, Crow Court.  As I was writing, I found that expressions came to mind that I hadn’t read and didn’t recall having heard. They just seemed right. I was making stuff up, which is what a novelist is supposed to do, but I was using a registry that sounded properly Dorset. In a key moment in a intricate plot, one of the characters tells his smuggling employer that he thinks the Customs men are onto them. This is how he says it;

“He’s snuffled your truffles, Charlie.”

Truffles, as you may well know, are fungi that grow underground. They are considered a great delicacy, but one of the best ways of finding them is by getting a pig to sniff them out. I don’t understand why the phrase, snuffle your truffles, doesn’t already exist. There is a meaning for ‘truffle snuffle’ but it’s rude and you’ll have to look that up yourself.

Another character came up with the expression “tickled his teats” meaning ‘pleased him’ – “You tickled his teats with somewhat…” I liked that because the language stays with farming and again, I couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist. Maybe it does, but I couldn’t find it. But my favourite moment of inspiration happened when one of my characters came up with the expression, “That’s a cat in a coop…” which refers to a cat getting into the hens’ enclosure. The advent of trouble, in other words. Again, why ‘cat-in-a-coop’ isn’t already an expression, I don’t know. It should be. It is now.

Perhaps I was overconfident making up my own terms, but I took it that the semi-spontaneous arrival of these inventions was a sign that I had steeped myself in Dorset dialect enough to have gained a feel for it. It seemed that way to me and it was thoroughly enjoyable to be writing with this gorgeous dialect in mind. Of course, I might be wrong—I might be totally delusional and the language might be completely off-key. I guess, ultimately, you’ll have to judge that for yourselves. Crow Court is lined up to be published by Unbound sometime early in 2020, but you can reserve yourself a copy by pledging support for the project on the unbound website; http://unbound.com/books/crow-court – just remember to use the discount code RULEBOOK to get 10% off.

For more information about William Barnes, his poetry and Dorset dialect, take a gander at the William Barnes society. Their website is here: https://www.williambarnessociety.org.uk/

About the author

AC Large.jpgAndy Charman was born in Dorset and grew up near Wimborne Minster. He has had short stories published in anthologies and journals. Crow Court is his first novel. He studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick, is married, has a daughter and now lives in Surrey. the first story to be finished, The World’s End, was originally short-listed in Cadenza magazine’s short-story competition in 2008, and was published in the anthology, Pangea, in 2012.

 

 

Students of Warwick University’s acclaimed writing programme launch anthology

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Agents, publishers, and editors are invited to join Warwick’s Writing students for their
anthology launch at Piccadilly Waterstones on the evening of Wednesday, the 12th of June.

Following tradition at the University of Warwick, the students of the esteemed MA in
Writing Programme have been working hard for the past eight months to publish an eclectic anthology of their work.

The anthology, Chimera, features work from 41 writers and includes a foreword from
award-winning poet, translator, and critic Michael Hulse.

Chimera, titled after the monster in Greek mythology, encompasses different styles and perspectives from local and international voices travelling across genres in fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

The launch will feature readings from 13 of the students, whose work includes:

  • An extract from a fantasy novel, where a Warrior-Queen leads her army through the desert to meet a tribe.
  • The opening of a horror novel centring around the haunted past of a childhood
    home, previously owned by a mysterious figure, Howard Pertman.
  • An extract from a historical fiction duology telling the story of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III.
  • A novel exploring a Palestinian Christian family’s experience living under
    Bethlehem’s occupation during the early 2000s, from the viewpoint of a child.
  • A poem that stands strong in the face of tragedy, telling of the poet’s experience
    losing a friend in the 2011 Norwegian massacre.
  • Short stories that range from a humorous tale, to a classical horror story, to an
    intricate tale of unfinished business at the end of a life.

Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu said:

“At a time when the major publishing behemoths risk creating a homogenised culture where only the same books are published by the same small clique of authors, it is vitally important to support collective creative endeavours like the Warwick Writing Programme Anthology, which has consistently brought unique voices to the ongoing literary conversation – and provides a rare opportunity to discover new stories, characters and worlds, as well as the writers behind them.”

A literary invitation

Literary agents, editors, and publishers interested in attending the launch are welcome to register in advance by emailing Frances at projectmanagement.anthology19@gmail.com, as spots are limited. Limited copies of the anthology will be available at the launch.

Alternatively, copies are available in both physical and e-book versions on request.

The launch of Chimera will be at 6 pm on Wednesday 12 June at Waterstones, Piccadilly, London W1J 9HD.

Creatives in profile: Ben Thomas

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Ben Thomas is editor of The Willows Magazine, author of The Cradle and the Sword, creator of TheStrangeContinent.com, and founder of the neuroscience news agency The Connectome. He travels the world as a freelance writer, and has lived in more than 40 countries. His hobbies include aquaculture, Linux customisation, tantric meditation and ink drawing.

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I spent my earliest years in the woodlands of Ohio — but was transplanted to the desolate steppe of West Texas at age 10. I got out of there as quickly as I could, moving to Los Angeles to study cinema. I spent most of my twenties in California — then in 2013, I made a decision to cast off my material possessions and backpack across Europe, Africa and Asia for four years. These days I’m nesting in Austin, Texas. But I’m hoping to get back to London, Paris and Rome soon; if only to collect the books and relics my friends have been kind enough to keep for me.

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I’ve always been intrigued by mysteries of all sorts. One of my earliest memories is of staring into an aquarium at the Toledo Zoo, gazing deeply into the eyes of a fish, trying to imagine what it was like to look out from those eyes; to be that fish. And I suppose some version of that quest has fueled all my great passions: my fascination with rare and esoteric creatures, my love for mythologies and ancient languages, my research on neuroscience and the human mind, my travels around the world, and my lifelong love for weird tales.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and literature?

THOMAS

Well, words are magic, aren’t they? When we present a compelling argument or conjure an imaginary scene in someone else’s mind, we’re quite literally casting spells: shaping our own (and others’) perceptions of reality through the verbal evocation of ideas. I can’t imagine a more delightful or rewarding trade to be in.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

THOMAS

Ashurbanipal, Enheduanna, Paul Atreides, Hypatia, Isaac Newton, Wu Zetian, Aleister Crowley, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Iain Banks, Rosalind Franklin, Hülagü Khan.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

THOMAS

For the first few years of my life, my mother devoted herself almost entirely to teaching me everything I wanted to know. We’d go to the library and check out stack after stack of books, then bring them home and read them one after another in our rocking chair. If I wanted to learn a skill — say, finger-painting or guitar — we’d acquire the necessary materials and explore that area until it was time to move on to the next exploration. She was the most wonderful gardener my growing mind could have wished for.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

THOMAS

A magician of language. (Cf. my answer to the question above.)

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I find it’s impossible to write fluently about any subject — fictional or otherwise — without a working knowledge of the world in question. But my research rarely proceeds according to any prearranged plan; each day I simply wake up and ask myself, “What do I want to know about today?” and proceed from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

THOMAS

I believe people in all creative disciplines bear a responsibility not only to describe the world as it is, but to present compelling pictures of the world as it could be. One of my mottos is, “Remember, someone is turning sixteen every day.” — in other words, every day, new people are waking up to themselves; examining ideas in the media they read and watch; deciding which ones they want to pursue, or integrate into themselves, and which ones they’ll reject. We don’t get to decide which of our ideas will connect with these people — but we do have a responsibility to provide them with accurate and useful concepts, and not to frighten them with falsehoods for the sake of profiteering.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about ‘The Willows’ – how did you first conceive of the idea, and what are some of the challenges in running a regular literary magazine in this day and age.

THOMAS

I first conceived of The Willows in 2006. I’d been an enthusiastic reader of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood since my university days — and one evening it just occurred to me that no one was publishing fiction in that vein anymore. Right then and there I set up a small website and put out a call for stories, and the response was far beyond what I expected: authors, illustrators, marketers and supporters appeared out of the blue, all rejoicing that this magazine existed. Seems I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed a cultural void where that The Willows ought to be!

A small crew of us ran the magazine from 2007-2010. The funds came out of my own pocket — earned at a series of mind-numbing day jobs — and many contributors volunteered to provide work for free, or for significantly less than their usual fees. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to produce a magazine; I taught myself Adobe InDesign, found a local print shop that was willing to work with me, and learned the trade through (often expensive) trial and error.

Over the years, the stress and expenses took their toll — I was spending upwards of $1000 of my own money to produce each issue, and usually making only a few hundred in profit, even with the advertising space we sold. My co-editors Skadi meic Beorh and Orrin Grey picked up a lot of the slushpile work, enabling me to focus more on the production side — but even so, we’d set ourselves the task of publishing a bimonthly magazine, out of our own pockets, while simultaneously working forty hours a week or more at our office jobs.

This obviously wasn’t sustainable — and it was, perhaps, inevitable that in the spring of 2010 I suffered a nervous breakdown, stormed out of my job at at a media planning agency, and became a recluse: living off government benefits, painstakingly crafting elaborate ecosystems in garden planters on the balcony – tiny bonsai trees, grassy hills, lakes, mountains and caves – and attempting to populate them with small frogs and fish, who all hopped away, or died overnight, to my horrified dismay; stringing up fluorescent lights in the attic to grow tomatoes and soybeans, resulting in a forest of dead leaves and vines into which I frantically pumped nutrients in the vain hope of resuscitation; poring over Babylonian cuneiform texts and ancient Greek philosophical treatises.

Long story short: I was, for all practical purposes, dead to the world until 2012 or so. When the dust settled, I decided I wanted to have nothing to do with The Willows — or the weird fiction community — and I moved on to studying neuroscience; and later, to traveling to other continents. It wasn’t until the spring of 2019, when I attended the Outer Dark Symposium of the Greater Weird in Atlanta, that I reconnected with many old friends (and made new ones) in the Weird community. At that conference I floated the idea of a Willows hardcover anthology — and once again, the response was far stronger than I expected. The Kickstarter campaign flowed naturally from there.

INTERVIEWER

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

THOMAS

I’ve just begun a new Strange Continent series on neolithic China, which I think is a fascinating time and place. I hope eventually to bring all Strange Continent stories together into a single attractive print volume (as some readers have suggested). But since visual images play such crucial roles in the historical tales I tell, I’ll need to find a way to acquire print rights to the paintings I’ve interspersed throughout these stories — and I anticipate a labyrinthine series of bureaucratic headaches in that direction.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting back to my roots, writing weird tales in the classic tradition of Machen and Blackwood (though some are set in the present day). I hope to find welcoming homes for some of these stories over the coming months.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

THOMAS

Absolutely impossible to pick just one. Here are my top nine.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

THOMAS

Cult classic. Fashion is fleeting, but style is timeless.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

THOMAS

Brian Evenson. He’s our century’s Kafka.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

THOMAS

The Apostle Paul. We should’ve tossed him out and kept the rest.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

THOMAS

My friend Orrin Grey. He’s a skeleton who writes more about monsters before nine a.m. than most people do all day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

THOMAS

All my talents remain hidden until the right time comes.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

THOMAS

Hmm… probably that time on a cruise to Mexico when I had a catastrophic panic attack (because it was impossible to get away from the throngs of loud drunk people) and locked myself in our cabin’s bathroom while my girlfriend screamed at me to stop being a psychotic infant. I’ve never set foot on a cruise ship since.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

THOMAS

I’ve done my level best to share everything I have with my friends.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

THOMAS

Nobody’s going to do this for you. If you want it, you’re going to have to build it yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

THOMAS

She’s just my student!

Honey…

Seen.