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 Augustine

Pressbild Augustine Foto: Oskar Omne

One of the hottest prospects to hit the music scene in 2019, Swedish artist Augustine first announced his presence with his hit debut, “Luzon” at the start of the year. Since then, more singles have followed, along with a critically acclaimed EP, Wishful Thinking at the start of the summer.

At 22-years of age, Augustine is a name that should be on everyone’s radar – as Nothing in The Rulebook made clear in our own review.  With songs and lyrics are characterised by soulful falsetto, cinematic instrumentation and melancholic love stories, it’s little wonder that two of his tracks immediately rocketed to #1 on Hype Machine, as he became one of the most talked about debuts of the year.

In his own words, he is an artist “weak for synth pop songs that are so big you just lose yourself in them”, yet, as readers can hear for themselves (by checking out his debut EP here), there’s a huge amount of versatility on offer here.

It was a pleasure to catch up with Augustine for our latest ‘Creatives in profile’ interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background

AUGUSTINE

Hi there! Thank you guys for the beautiful write-up on the EP! I live in Stockholm, Sweden, at the moment; but I’m born and raised in a small town called Jörlanda on the Swedish west coast, just outside of Gothenburg. I moved to Stockholm about two years ago for the music. Before then I spent my days writing songs at home and finishing senior high school.

INTERVIEWER

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

AUGUSTINE

I played some sports when I was younger. Football and ice hockey! But I eventually quit them both because of the interest I had for music. So maybe it’s not my first love, but it’s surely the greatest love!

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

AUGUSTINE

Oh there’s so many! For the EP specifically, I listened a lot to The National, Phoebe Bridgers and The xx – just to name a few. I think they all have some kind of gloom and melancholia to their music, which I’m totally drawn to; that’s the sort of thing that makes me inspired.

INTERVIEWER

One of your first tracks, Luzon, pivots around a certain sense of oblivion through experiences of love – with lyrics like “you might just kill me off”; “I just want a disaster” – whereas another of your first tracks, and A Scent of Lily is more open and contemplative about love and relationships; you ask, “now what’s next?” For you, how much is music a way of communicating these different encounters and experiences of love – and, when it comes to it, where do you tend to place yourself on the scale between oblivion and hopeful optimism?

AUGUSTINE

Great question! It wasn’t my intention at all to write love songs when I first started making music. I played the drums and I was really into the beat and pulse of a song, and as far as lyrics go I tried to write some poems when I was younger; but that was it.

Then when I started to sing, it just felt natural to craft these kind of gloomy love-stories, maybe because I’ve listened a lot to artists who tend to do that (The National, etc…). So I guess that must be a way of communicating different experiences, whether it’s on purpose or not! On the scale, I’d place myself more to the oblivion side of things.

INTERVIEWER

What role does the (somewhat intangible) concept of love play in your work more generally? 

AUGUSTINE

I’ve realised lately that I often enjoy these heavy dramas about love, movies like ’Blue Valentine’ or ’Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. I’m fascinated about it but I can’t really give a good answer as to why. It’s not that fun to watch or to listen to a story in which the relationship just works out, right?

INTERVIEWER

Your new tracks, Viola and Slacks – like your other work – showcase a fusion between different blends of music (like a fine cuisine) – from Electro to Jazz, classical to modern, mixing the digital with traditional, instrumental; old and new. Meanwhile the lyrics are often structurally poetic, reminiscent of Rodriguez or Dylan. Do you see your music as being intrinsically linked to any one particular genre of music? Or are genres within any creative art inherently limiting and confining?

AUGUSTINE

It’s definitely fun to play around! And at the same time try to keep some kind of sound through out a number of songs. I have to say thank you for mentioning Rodriguez and Dylan.

augustine_palma2

Augustine: “more to the oblivion side of things”

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through your creative process? How do you take a song from initial idea into fully-fledged single?

AUGUSTINE

It’s a mess! I don’t understand my own process very well yet. I often start the idea in the production stage, where I start to experiment with different sounds and beats. When I have some kind of rough demo, I listen to that idea over and over again until it’s playing in my head even when it’s quiet. Like for instance when I’m going to sleep. That’s when the writing of lyrics start to take place – in my head while almost falling asleep. The brain forms such random words and themes to the songs when you’re tired.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in the music industry at the moment, what are your thoughts and feelings on the way the industry is developing? What should we be looking out for over the coming months/years? And how would you advise aspiring music artists to break out onto the scene?

AUGUSTINE

I don’t really know. It’s hard to have a say on that beast of a machine that it is! Now with the streaming era I think many people adapt their songs a bit to make them interesting in the very first seconds. Limited attention spans and all that. I guess every artist just has to make the best of it in their own way, but most importantly: keep on doing your thing and always write the songs you want to write. 

INTERVIEWER

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

AUGUSTINE

This summer it’s time to finally write more music again! My focus is also set on getting some live shows going, and just to keep on building this project. This year has been a blast!

Quick-fire round! 

INTERVIEWER

Favourite musician/band?

AUGUSTINE

Well, since you mentioned him earlier, Bob Dylan!

INTERVIEWER

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

AUGUSTINE

’Boots of Spanish Leather’ by Dylan always leaves my heart so full. So full that I can’t name a single song I hate right now!

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

AUGUSTINE

Cult classic!

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

AUGUSTINE

Kindness!

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

AUGUSTINE

Ed Sheeran? So dull of me to say that!

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

AUGUSTINE

My good friend ’J. Aissa’ just released his debut single ’S&W’ a couple weeks ago. It’s just beautiful!

INTERVIEWER

If music didn’t exist – what would you do?

AUGUSTINE

Oh, maybe I wouldn’t have quit football. I think I’d like to study some psychology courses.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

AUGUSTINE

I think I can do a kick flip on a skateboard! I could a year ago, at least.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment? 

AUGUSTINE

Back when I was a kid I got so angry at my older brothers that I smashed the windows of our car with a big rock. 

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

AUGUSTINE

This whole year!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

AUGUSTINE

”I wish I could” he said!

Creatives in profile: interview with Matthew Smith

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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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Katie Arnstein

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

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

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

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

*career decidedly not glittery.

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

Equal rights, large cups of tea and Bruce Springsteen.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ARNSTEIN

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

 INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your creative projects?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

Quick fire round!

 INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

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

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ARNSTEIN

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

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARNSTEIN

She dreamt it then did it.

Check out Sexy Lamp for yourselves

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

Creatives in profile: interview with Mark Gillis

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Mark Gillis has been combining writing, performing and directing since his university days (where he studied Biochemistry). As an actor, he has worked extensively in the theatre, most recently playing Agrippa in Antony & Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington (Chichester). As a member of the RSC he performed in As You Like It, Macbeth and Troilus and Cressida during seasons at Stratford and The Barbican. He played Mark in the Irish premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s play Shopping and F***ing. He co-founded and was artistic director of the touring production company LPC, with whom he produced and directed several European tours of modern classic plays such as Waiting for Godot, The Caretaker, The Importance of Being Ernest and GB Shaw’s The White Lady. And he has appeared in several television and film roles including: Silent Witness, The Bill, Emmerdale, Grange Hill, Eastenders, Holby, The Brittas Empire, Absolute Hell, Prick, Jean Moulin, Either/Or, Going Home and An Ideal Husband. Most recently he plays Mr. Hogg Diggins in the Channel 4 comedy Lee & Dean.

There’s a lot of creative stuff to talk about here, but we’re here today to talk primarily about his debut movie, Sink, which tells the story of Micky Mason, a working class man living in East London who must contend with a multitude of different crises of our modern world.

Produced by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (who says you will find yourselves “immersed” in it), Sink has received glowing reviews (including one from us, of course), following its screenings at cinemas across the UK.

But what does it take to produce a movie independently, particularly in a current climate that so clearly favours the established corporate behemoths over individual creatives? It was a pleasure to catch up with Gillis to find out.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I live in Brockley, South East London (the film was shot here and in nearby New Cross/Deptford). I’m an actor who has been writing seriously for about 10 years. I have also directed in the theatre and have made short films. Sink is my first feature as writer/director.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I suppose most of my work has been as an actor in the theatre so that would be an equal passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

GILLIS

Donald Glover

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through how the process of taking your debut movie, Sink, from spec-script to fully-fledged film reality?

GILLIS

It was never really a spec-script in that sense. I’d had the typical experience of scripts being developed (unpaid) and getting very close to being made, then failing because the money didn’t match the cast (in both directions). When I was writing Sink, I realised we could make it very cheaply; I knew exactly who I wanted to cast (I’ve worked as an actor with all of them), I knew who’s flat we could borrow, etc., etc.. So I decided we’d just go ahead and make it ourselves. We did a crowd-funder and various small investors came in. We made it for £35K, which is nothing for a feature; BUT that was only possible with EVERYONE working for deferred fees and profit share. Everybody on the film from investor to runner was party to the same financial framework.

Of course, it’s all very well making your film, but at the end of the process you’re back at the brick wall; the first thing distributors ask is “who’s your lead actor.” Without a star name the vast majority won’t watch the film. So it’s very tough. We got lucky – a well known producer saw the film and badgered her distributor to watch it. They picked us up for a limited theatrical release which meant we could get Press reviews (virtually impossible if you haven’t got a distributor who is part of the Film Distributors Association who run the week of release screenings). So although all films are a collaborative process, this one REALLY was, in effect everyone working on the film was an investor in it, literally; they will only get paid once the film shows a profit. That’s a very humbling fact for me.

INTERVIEWER

In Sink, we follow the lives of those who have been dispossessed by the processes of modern capitalism. There’s a clear political angle to the film; yet for all that, it’s also intensely human, and character-driven. As a screenwriter and director, how do you tread the line between potentially competing focuses; the political and the human?

GILLIS

There is a political angle and that kicked off my wanting to tell the story. I live in the area where the film is set and there are pockets of people leading very challenged lives. There are also the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, looming up seemingly at the end of the road.  So you have people whose lives have been changed beyond recognition living in the shadow of the institutions directly responsible. They committed crimes on an industrial scale, yet nobody has been prosecuted. It made me question where we are with that; if people who benefitted so hugely from the system can do that with impunity, can we condemn somebody for doing whatever’s necessary to stay afloat? It also made me angry enough to want to write something! But if that’s all there is, there’s no point writing a screenplay. Write an essay or an article. There has to be a story and for that there must be characters.

At the start I was intrigued by these three generations of men; Micky, his father and his son.  Principally it was the way the relationship to work had changed over those three generations; Micky was once a skilled worker who can now find only menial, zero hours jobs; his father has only ever known skilled manual work and his son has never really had a relationship to work. That’s a massive change in working class men’s lives and a theme I was eager to explore. Then it’s a question of whittling away until you find the core story and that was Micky’s.

If scenes are trying to force in a particular political idea, they will immediately stick out (and ultimately be cut out during the edit). Every scene must move the story forward in some way, while planting enough of the politics that the guiding themes are catered for.

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Three generations of men: Micky (left, played by Martin Herdman, leads his father and son through their local neighbourhood)

INTERVIEWER

What is your personal take on the current political climate, and how does it affect the stories we tell?

GILLIS

I really hope we are not in as bad a state as I think we might be in. I think the current ease with which the fundamental structures of democracy are being dismantled is terrifying. I am trying to have some sense of hope but the precedents for these early warning signs are so clear, I feel we’re sleepwalking into autocracy. It seems all the requirements are in place. If we don’t want that to happen, I guess it’s down to us to speak up.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel the characters in Sink would react to the unfurling narrative around the Brexit process?

GILLIS

It’s so weird for me, because Sink was written and shot before the referendum was even tabled. SO much has changed. I’m a remainer.  I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to decide whether to make Micky a leaver or not. I’m still not sure how he would have voted. It would have been up to me to decide whether I make the character I created reach the decision I want him to, or whether I would be entirely true to what HE would have done. And I’m still not sure which way round that would have been. I do know that an awful lot of people who have felt entirely left behind after 30 odd years of neo-liberalism voted Brexit. Perhaps Micky was one of them. But that makes me a bit upset.

Fr M Kitchn

A Brexit voter? Sink was written and shot before the EU referendum in the UK, so we’ll perhaps never know which way Micky would have voted.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in film making, what are your thoughts and feelings on the movie industry. And how would you advise aspiring film makers to break out onto the scene?

GILLIS

Obviously we live in the age of the huge franchise. There’s nothing wrong with that, some of them are great movies. What we might be losing is the middle ground; it’s either massive budgets that only the studios can bring together, or the tiny (in film terms) budgets that are somehow drawn together by financial jiggery pokery based around tax credits. Or people making films themselves on no budgets. It seems to me this isn’t a sustainable business model.

Outside the public funding bodies (and even with their involvement) each film has to start afresh to raise its finance. Add to that the current surge in high end TV which has lead to crew shortages and therefore higher rates, it’s difficult to see where the film industry can be heading. And yet, films still get made. I don’t know an answer. I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

As to what advice to give, I think the most important thing is spending time getting the script right. However you get the film together, it will be the script that brings people on board or makes them pass. It’s getting the right people in to the project that will get the film made. It all starts and ends with the script.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a film maker?

GILLIS

I think there is an ethical responsibility not to create work that simply reinforces a negative. By the same token (in an equal and opposite way) there is an ethical responsibility to create work that examines the negative – that pulls it apart and provides a new viewpoint on it.

But it’s not for the film maker to dictate how that work must be received. There has to be room for the “wrong” view to be taken – otherwise you haven’t created something truthful.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

What happens next.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write and direct?

GILLIS

I really try not to.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

GILLIS

The focussing and entrapment of energy

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘director’ mean to you?

GILLIS

Depends which director you’re talking about.

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’. What role do you think movies have to play in a world of ‘alternative facts’?

GILLIS

It’s strange isn’t it, that we head more and more towards finding truth in stories; in made up events. And yet, that is where truth is found. I’m very interested in the effect that Reality TV has had on our psychology. Even the title is a lie. It isn’t reality, everybody knows what they’re doing because there’s a camera there and they know they can watch it later. So we’ve spent 20 odd years saying that a fabricated reality is the truth. It’s kind of delicious (if it wasn’t so disgusting) that a “star” of the genre becomes the most powerful man in the world. Trump has spent his life lying – his whole ego is based on a lie that he was responsible for creating the financial success he’s had (multi-million dollar bankruptcies notwithstanding), instead of being gifted it on birth.

Can movies be a bulwark against lies? Absolutely. They can tell the truth because they are set free from the constraints of the market place (hang on, weren’t we just saying that the film industry can’t work because it’s not a sustainable business model?). They can show what humanity can be at a time when real life is coughing up its dregs. There’s an enormous role for movies (for ALL storytelling), I think now more than at any point in my lifetime.  Stories could pull us back from the brink. Will anyone listen though?

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I have two other screenplays, one about a man discovering how his own acceptance of being gay has been affected by events from a previous generation and a story about a charity that goes rogue to be able to carry out its real work. I’m also working on a couple of TV ideas because that’s all anyone wants to hear about.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

GILLIS

He made his own way back.

INTERVIEWER

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

GILLIS

I know it’s a hoary old cliché but just keep writing. And then keep re-writing. Find readers you trust, listen to them and be willing to really start again if necessary. There are all sorts of gut wrenching machinations that come from giving up what you’ve sweated blood over. But sometimes it can be an amazing release.

  • Watch the trailer for Sink here below: 

Creatives in profile: interview with Paul Scraton

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

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

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for the book?

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a writer?

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

INTERVIEWER

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

SCRATON

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

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro

Joana Ramiro is a journalist, writer and political commentator.

Born in Lisbon, in 2006 she moved to London, and in 2010 she became one of the founders of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, as well as its Chief Press Officer. Since then, she has covered the occupation of Tahir Square in Cairo during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, as well as the 2015 Greek elections and the Calais refugee camp, among numerous other pieces of foreign correspondence.

Domestically, she was the first reporter to cover the fight of Focus E15, a group of London single mothers campaigning to be rehoused, after being evicted from a hostel by Newham Council in 2014. She has reported from a series of mass demonstrations, occupations, deportations and strikes, focusing on the effects of austerity policies in British society.

As a political commentator, Ramiro has been featured on Channel 4 News, BBC and LBC radio, as well as debates against fellow pundits Peter Oborne, Michael White and Peter Hitchens.

At a time when the truth is under attack – when journalists are attacked and maligned by those in power and those online, while Silicon Valley siphons off advertising revenue and amplifies untruths for profit – supporting, and hearing from, independent journalists is increasingly important. So Nothing in the Rulebook were incredibly pleased to catch up with Ramiro to bring you this following interview.

INTERVIEWER

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

Hi, my name is Joana Ramiro and I’m a freelance journalist and writer based in London. I carry a Portuguese passport and was educated in a German school. My dad’s Angolan. It was all a big melting pot back at home and I try to keep it so in my adult life too (not hard, given that I live in the capital of melting pots).

INTERVIEWER

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

It wasn’t my first love but it should have been. As a child I wanted to be an actor but when I hit puberty my ambitions got thwarted by the usual patriarchally-instilled insecurities about my looks, weight, and general lack of self-worth. I then went and studied advertising but it wasn’t very satisfying as I needed something a little more academic at that point. So, to compensate the lack of enthusiasm for my degree, I started doing a political blog and getting involved with campaigns I always felt an affinity for. Things like justice for Palestinians and an anti-cuts campaign at my university. That then grew into the student movement of 2010/11 where I was the founder and press officer for one of the main campaigns (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts). I went back to uni in 2010, did a postgrad programme in politics and then a masters in Middle East politics, went to Palestine and Egypt (during the occupation of Tahrir Square) and a few years later got a full time job as a journalist at a small daily called the Morning Star. A week in I thought: “Goddamn! Why haven’t I been doing this all along?!”

INTERVIEWER
Who inspires you, and why? 
RAMIRO

Great journalism inspires me and I think of the greats of old and sometimes wonder if it’s still possible to do that kind of work. Journalists of past and present like Martha Gelhorn, Ryszard Kapuściński, Svetlana Alexievitch, Clare Hollingworth and Paul Mason inspire me every day to speak truth to power.

INTERVIEWER

What is the role of journalists today, in an era of ‘fake news’ and accusations of media bias? 

RAMIRO
 

The role of a journalist at any time is to speak truth to power. To me that means looking at the balance of forces and asking yourself “Who is being exploited, oppressed, or used in this situation?” and then write about it. Much is said about media bias vs unbiased journalism and in the end, you’ll find, the judgement is always in favour of whoever is in control of the narrative. There’s always a bias in journalism because there’s always a bias in our societies. A good journalist asks herself in who’s favour is that bias and writes about what the effects of such bias might be. Who benefits and who suffers under X state policies? Who benefits and who suffers under Y ideology? From there, a journalist’s role is to shine a light on what is in the dark. 

INTERVIEWER

When covering complex political issues and discourse, how do you navigate the challenge between communicating an issue or subject clearly and effectively, while also bringing the necessary balance and nuance and critical thought required to ensure the piece has real genuine value? 

RAMIRO

Good prose is written simply but at length. Unfortunately, it seems that while writing simply is still cherished in our media landscape, length is going increasingly out of style. A dangerous precedent if you ask me. You can’t explain the complexities of war in a 250 word article or in a 2.30min piece. You can’t explore the nuances of the Venezuelan political conundrum in a series of Tweets. We need to start investing in long-form journalism, not only in the case of what is usually called “long reads” but as a matter of journalistic norm. If people will deadscroll through 5min inspirational videos they will watch a 5min piece about Cape Town’s Day Zero. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a journalist
RAMIRO
 

Of course. That’s why I refuse to work for xenophobic and migrant-bashing publications (we all know who they are). I wouldn’t go as far as condemning all that do – many colleagues work wherever work is available because they’ve got bills to pay – but given the choice I’d rather not write than enable or legitimise far-right opinions and rhetoric.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent has current political discourse and debate sidelined other important issues facing the world; such as catastrophic climate breakdown?

RAMIRO

I don’t think it has. Not least because the current political discourse might include disgusting people like Viktor Orban and Tommy Robinson, but also includes inspiring voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who does speak aplenty about climate and a Green New Deal).

INTERVIEWER

In an age of increasingly low incomes for journalists, and with funding models of traditional media corporations often favouring the large, Murdoch-owned papers over other independent news outlets, how can aspiring journalists break onto the scene while maintaining their journalistic integrity and any moral standards they may need? 

RAMIRO

Alas, it often seems nearly impossible and all the more so for young journalists who aren’t white middle class men  living in London. It’s good that places like the Guardian have programmes targeting this but more needs to be done. I suspect media reform is the way to go in order to tackle all these problems. Not to be too on the nose, but the Labour Party’s proposals on media reform announced last year would be a pretty decent start. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s your analysis of the state of both politics and journalism today? Where are we heading?

RAMIRO
 

God, I’d be a millionaire if I had the answer to that question. Can you imagine what the City would pay me for that sort of consultancy?! 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you personally? Any exciting projects we should know about? 
RAMIRO
 

I’m doing a lot of exciting things this year, but one of those I’m having a lot of fun at is my show Red Hacks. It’s a series of conversations with renowned journalists about being a leftwing journalist in a neoliberal world and it’s hosted by the Politics Theory Other podcast. The latest episode is with New Statesman deputy editor George Eaton. Do give it a listen 🙂

Quick fire round! 

INTERVIEWER
Vehicle of choice: Brexit battle bus or Corbyn bicycle
RAMIRO
 
Bicycle always! I have my own and it’s called Belinda.
INTERVIEWER
Curl up with a book or head to the movies? 
RAMIRO
 

Going to the movies in London is extortionate (unless you go to Peckhamplex in Peckham – £4.99 any ticket any day), so I’m gonna say curl up with a book. That would probably be my default choice anyway.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 
RAMIRO
 

Always the classics. Casablanca is a masterpiece in far more ways than it’s known for. Same could be said about To Have and Have Not (I’m not just stanning for Humphrey Bogart, I promise).

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about? 
RAMIRO
 

Erika Lust. She’s a feminist porn film maker and a champion of talking about women’s desire openly and outside of the liberal-cisgendered axis. Plus her stuff is simply beautiful to look at. I’ll be interviewing her soon. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?
RAMIRO

I can sleep anywhere under any circumstances, which is very handy for a journalist. Also, in a better world I would have spent more time singing in a more professional way. My brother (who’s an actual musician) and I have a few amateurish projects but I never seem to have enough time to invest in it properly or as much as I’d like to.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?
RAMIRO
 
Fuckbois. That’s why she was single.
INTERVIEWER
Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring journalists?
RAMIRO
 
  1. Go to the place, talk to the people. Don’t just write a story from whatever you saw on Twitter or whatever an expert commented on.
  2. Always carry a recorder (most phones will have one nowadays) and don’t forget the batteries (or keeping your phone charged).
  3. When taking pictures in a controversial or dangerous situation always carry two memory cards for your camera. Fill one of them with faff/tourist pictures of the place. Carry the one with the journalistic pictures in your sock or bra. Don’t cross checkpoints or police lines with a camera full of “incriminating” material. 
  4. Always carry cigarettes. Even if you don’t smoke. They’re incredibly handy appeasers, bargaining chips, conversation starters, bonding props. Odd, I know. But it works. 
  5. Learn the art of conversation. Everyone will get the same quotes if they ask the obvious questions. Make it your business to be more than a question machine. Offer something back, even if just a shown interest in what your subject has to say. 
  6. Advice I was given (part I): Start writing your piece as if following the sentence: “Guys, guess what?…”
  7. Advice I was given (part II): Read what you wrote out loud at least once. It really helps you catch otherwise unnoticed typos, grammar errors, generally weird sentences and such.
  8. Invest in a transcription programme (I hate hate hate transcribing). 
  9. Read! Read fiction. Read old books. Read theory. Read as widely as you can. Follow it up by listening to music or watching movies on the same theme (in my family we call this “a festival”). Learn the joys of immersing yourself in something other than what is labelled journalism. Good journalism is done with knowledge wider than that. 
  10. Journalism is team work. George Orwell relied on many many people he never mentioned in his books (true story – not just using this as a metaphor for the case in point). Acknowledge that and use it. Help others and ask for help. Reject the idea that journalism is a rat race. Reject the idea that work is a rat race for that matter. Revel in cooperation. It will make you a better journalist, if not even a better person. 

Creatives in profile: interview with Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin Columnist - Image (2).jpg

Back in January, Nothing in the Rule Book had the chance to review Martina Devlin’s tenth book, a collection of short stories, entitled ‘Truth and Dare’. The stories follow eleven pioneering women from Irish history, pulling moments from their lives and reimagining them in fiction. Each story is an invitation into the life of a historical figure but we wanted to know more about the woman behind the book: Martina herself.

A former Fleet Street journalist, Martina was born in Omagh and now lives in Dublin. She writes for the Irish Independent and was named National Newspapers of Ireland Columnist of the Year. Her fiction is ambitious and covers a wide range of genres and themes. From About Sisterland, a dystopian novel set in the near-future, to The House Where It Happened, historical fiction based on the Irish witch trials of 1711, her writing is ambitious and creative, steeped in dedicated research.

Her work has won or been shortlisted for several prestigious several prizes, including the 1996 Hennessy Literary Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. We were lucky enough to be able to catch up with Martina a second time, to find out more about her background, her inspiration and her writing.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about your background.

DEVLIN

I’m a child of the Troubles. I grew up in Omagh, Co Tyrone when civil war for a prolonged period was our normal – random bomb attacks, heavily armed soldiers on the streets, roadblocks, no-go areas, dawn raids on houses by security forces, helicopters buzzing overhead and civilians treated as collateral damage in large scale violence. My parents protected us from it as much as possible but violence was a fact of everyday life.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love?

DEVLIN

Storytelling certainly is. I regard myself as a storyteller whether I’m engaged in journalism or creative non-fiction or fiction. As a little girl I was always telling stories to told my family and writing them down in copybooks. I also illustrated my stories, rather badly but with an enthusiastic use of colour. I still have one of my notebooks – it shows no early signs of genius but, rather, a fascination with what my characters were having for tea. Enid Blyton was able to carry that off with picnics and all sorts of foodie high jinks but I wasn’t. However, I realised that research mattered and I used to go to Mrs Quinn’s sweetshop near our house and write down the names of various goodies. Although the shop no longer exists, I can’t pass the building without thinking of all those chocolate animals and jelly shapes I used to buy with a few small coins.

INTERVIEWER

What would you be if not a writer?

DEVLIN

A politician because politics can effect change. The Good Friday Agreement is proof of that. But the whip system is exerted too ruthlessly and I know I’d struggle with that – for me, conscience would always trump how any party leadership decided to vote on an issue. So I expect that eventually I’d be expelled from whichever party I joined. I’ve never belonged to any political party. I’m too much of an outsider, an observer. But I do see that politics is a powerful way of driving change and making a difference in people’s lives.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

DEVLIN

My parents. My father, in particular, had a great respect for reading, learning and storytelling – the power of the story – and he shared that love with me. I remember long car journeys as a child, going from our home in Omagh to my mother’s place of birth in Co Limerick, and both parents passed the journey for us with stories. The oral tradition was strong in our family.

My father never felt hard done by, he had a gentle nature, but there’s no doubt he was a clever man unable to get on in life because of the unjust political situation in Northern Ireland which denied him opportunities. He wasn’t able to vote until he was in his mid-thirties, for example – you had to be a householder but housing was in the control of the ruling majority which didn’t believe in sharing. That’s why the civil rights movement started in 1968. My mother lost the right to vote when she moved to Omagh. Isn’t that extraordinary? Both Dublin and London looked the other way for many decades of Northern Ireland’s existence.

My father had to leave school at the age of 12 to work as a message boy – Grandad was more or less an invalid and the family needed my father’s wage to help them survive. By the time I came along, he was a bus driver and worked very hard to raise seven children – as did my mother in the home – and if I have a work ethic I inherited it from them.

INTERVIEWER

Where do you find inspiration?

DEVLIN

If I knew the answer to that I’d bottle it and keep it on my desk. I honestly don’t know. Reading, thinking, looking, thinking some more?

INTERVIEWER

You describe the women featured in ‘Truth and Dare’ as your heroes. Is there some shared quality that earns them this distinction?

DEVLIN

Their vision and persistence. They recognised injustice and struggled to overturn it. They believed they could bring about change and wanted to make it happen not just for their own benefit but for others. They collaborated to achieve their goals, chipping away at enormous obstacles – both from the system, or the community at large, and their own families. It’s always hard to challenge the status quo but they did. Often, they were demonised for their behaviour but they knew they were right and kept faith.

INTERVIEWER

Is there one woman from the book whose life you find particularly moving or instructive? If so, why?

DEVLIN

Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal and courageous and believed in the strength of her convictions. In 1798, she walked with her brother Henry Joy McCracken to the gallows – now that required pluck – and took responsibility for his natural daughter after his death, insisting the little girl should be recognised by the family. Also she believed in doing what was right in other ways, for example refusing to eat sugar because of the slave trade. She was a successful businesswoman and ran a muslin manufacturing business with her sister to give employment to poor Belfast people, and the pair of them absorbed the losses during slack periods rather than lay workers off. She wanted children to be educated and helped to support a school, she was part of a campaign to stop boys being used as chimney sweeps and she spoke out about cruelty to animals. Her empathy and energy ranged far and wide. This woman was a rock of decency: Protestantism at its most ethical.

INTERVIEWER

Who did you feel you were writing the book for?

DEVLIN

People who didn’t know much about the women I chose to include in the collection, people for whom they were only names, if that – but who might be intrigued and go off and learn more about them. There’s magic in fiction. I hoped the stories would help to breathe life into extraordinary figures who have shaped the world we live in. Women have pockets in our clothes because of the Rational Dress Movement. We can vote because of the suffrage movement. Let’s not take it all for granted.

INTERVIEWER

Feminism has changed so much since the time of the women in your book – 2018 saw the Irish Abortion Referendum. How does being a woman in Ireland now compare to the lives of women a hundred years ago?

DEVLIN

I’m convinced women from a hundred years ago would be disappointed by the slow pace of change, although there have been improvements in recent years – quotas have increased the number of women TDs. But there are still only four female Cabinet ministers out of 15. As it happens, I brought Countess Markievicz back from the dead in one of my stories (What Would The Countess Say?)  to cast a cold eye over the state of politics today. She’s aghast to discover there’s been no female Taoiseach in the history of the Irish State. It doesn’t look imminent, either, with no female leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in the history of either party. When you consider that she was the second Cabinet minister in the world and the first in Europe (back as 1919), we can see the trailblazing ground to a halt. Women of enormous talent, with a real contribution to make, weren’t given a look in.

Incidentally, Countess Markievicz has taken on a life of her own apart from the short story collection and a play based on the story is being debuted at Dalkey Heritage Centre in Dublin on April 2nd – the centenary, to the day, of her appointment as Minister for Labour.

INTERVIEWER

How does writing a collection of short stories compare to writing a novel?

DEVLIN

It’s less of a long haul – I liked the variety of working on short stories rather than the concentrated focus of a novel. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by a novel.

INTERVIEWER

Were any of the stories in the collection particularly difficult to write? If so, why?

DEVLIN

The really difficult one was the story about Nano Nagle, who founded the Presentation order, because I struggled to imagine myself as a nun. But I hope I did justice to her and her selfless work for the poor of Cork. The stories are all first person or close third so I had to feel an empathy with those I wrote about. One or two women didn’t make the final cut because I didn’t manage that act of ventriloquism. I was nearly there but the clock was against me deadline wise. Perhaps another time.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you angry?

DEVLIN

The risk from Brexit of a hard border undermining peace in Ireland. I can’t say any more, I might burst a blood vessel. Oh, all right, I’ll just say this. Project Fear was the most perfidious phrase to put into people’s hands by the Leave campaign…it allowed them to avoid dealing with inconvenient facts.

INTERVIEWER

What makes you hopeful?

DEVLIN

The shameless self-interest of our cat Chekhov. When he wants something, he weaves figures of eight between your legs, tripping you up. When he can’t be bothered with you, if you try to stroke him he slinks down almost to his (considerable) belly to avoid your hand. It’s all on his terms. Why does that make me hopeful? Nature gives most of us the tools we need to survive. With cats, it’s winning ways – when it suits them. I admire their indifference to us.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any writers you envy?

DEVLIN

No, everyone who gets published is lucky, regardless of how well or otherwise a book does. I know I’m fortunate and I don’t take it for granted.

INTERVIEWER

To what extent do you feel stories should be morally instructive?

DEVLIN

Ouch! You have to sneak in the moral if you’re bent on having one, and I confess I often am. The minute it’s obvious, though, you and your moral are toast.

INTERVIEWER

If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself as you started out on your writing career?

DEVLIN

Listen carefully to all the conflicting advice you’re given, mull it over and make up your own mind.

INTERVIEWER

What frustrates you about writing?

DEVLIN

The days when nothing comes. The days when I start to doubt a story I’m working on. If I don’t believe in them, who will?

INTERVIEWER

What is the best thing about writing?

DEVLIN

I love the characters who spring from my fingertips. I know this makes me sound like a hapless channel for some external intelligence producing the work. But honestly, sometimes – on a good day – characters just muscle in unexpectedly. And I say to myself, well who are you?

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on next?

DEVLIN

A novel about Edith Somerville of Somerville and Ross fame – they were Victorian ladies who charted the demise of their Ascendancy class even as it was happening. I find them interesting for at least five reasons, if not more. But I’ll spare you the dissertation and stop at five. Number one, because Ross was a unionist while Somerville developed a nationalist position. Number two, because they worked in partnership (dual voices combining to create one memorable voice). Number three because they understood the value of authentic dialect. Number four because of their humour. And number five because they insisted they were professional writers, not dilettantes, had one of the first literary agents and demanded to be treated with respect.