Creatives in profile: interview with Wundor Editions

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Matthew Smith, founder of independent publishing house, Wunder Editions.

It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the industry has been forced to seek new and innovative ways to survive. 

One fantastic – and relatively new – player within the sector is Wundor Editions, a London-based publishing house committed to producing innovative and challenging literature and images, while working with new and established writers and photographers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview with the founder of Wundor Editions, the author, photographer and designer Matthew Smith.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

SMITH

I’m a writer of fiction and poetry, a photographer and a designer. I read English Literature at Oxford, but part of me had wanted to go to art school in London. Both the literary and the visual have always been key for me. In my own creativity and in the work of the artists I am inspired by I like to be surprised by the work of the imagination. A ‘wundor’ is an Old English word for something unimaginable, perhaps a miracle, perhaps a monster. This is the stuff of storytelling, so I named my publishing house after it.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SMITH

Nas, Billy Corgan, Pep Guardiola, Marilynne Robinson, Bjork, Warren Buffet. All people with a singular vision who have managed to bring it out of themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Wundor Editions – how was it borne into existence? 

SMITH 

I wanted to make compelling books and present them to readers in new and engaging ways. By fusing together the worlds of striking photography, illustration and design with original, new works of literature, I felt we could make a world of creativity that people would want to be part of.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent publishing house into existence – the sector is so dominated by the established ‘big five’. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Wundor Editions?

SMITH

The main challenges are to do with becoming known to readers. First you have to become known to bookshop owners. Before that you have to become known to reviewers, a distributor and a sales team. You have to take the vision out to these people first, and convince a lot of people that your vision will come to fruition with perhaps only one book in print form that you can use to demonstrate this.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent publishers within the publishing sector?

SMITH

There are lots of artistic works out there that are not given the time of day but they could find an audience. There is no shortage of this stuff, that’s a myth. You just have to know what you’re looking for, and be grateful that it’s not what someone else is looking for.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for? Why are they important?

SMITH

They give artists a platform and inspire their readers.

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent publishers have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and artists whose books may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

SMITH

Great books are great books – big companies publish them, small companies publish them. Independent publishers should be careful not to define themselves by their differences to bigger companies, thereby limiting their own potential unnecessarily. And independent publishers do fall into the same trap Julian Barnes rightly mentions. But hopefully more often than not their independence allows for a more nimble and agile approach to creativity, and the courage to take risks on original works of art. The challenge is to build this ethos into a growing company that continues to take risks as it grows.

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

I’m just looking for exciting new authors and photographers who have unique visions and who have taken the time to develop their technique so they can express their ideas brilliantly. The future will look after itself.

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

The same role they’ve always played. The internet is great for seeking out specific pieces of information and for communication, but after prolonged periods it wears away at your concentration and offers little in the way of sustenance. Traditional presses can make books we can treasure and that have meaning – both in their physical form and as vehicles for stories and poems. There is a power that a book lying on a table has that is magnetic. The internet can’t compete with it.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

SMITH

The ability to imagine something and then to make it accessible to others.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to Wundor Editions?

SMITH

Go for it! It doesn’t have to be perfect – we will work with writers to develop their stories and their poetry. But you do need to have an original voice.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Wundor Editions? What should we look out for?

SMITH

We’ll be publishing an Australian literary heavyweight for the first time in the UK later this year, and we’ll be launching our first photobooks too.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

SMITH

Oh no. Wait. That’s it! Hmmm.

INTERVIEWER

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

SMITH

  • Trust your own instincts completely but be open to other people’s ideas.
  • The only thing worse than refusing to take advice is taking advice you’re not comfortable with. Take advice from a number of sources and pick and choose what resonates with you. Be your own executive editor.
  • Know that you might have to put your work out there before it’s perfect, and perfect it along the way.
  • There’s no such thing as writer’s block, only fallow periods. If you don’t have any ideas, don’t write anything. Wait for the urge to come back. You’ll save yourself a lot of hours of editing.
  • There’s always time to write a novel if you really want to. Be ingenious in your scheduling.
  • Minimise all engagement with digital stuff if you want to rediscover deep concentration.
  • Don’t buy into the dream of a life where you only have to write. You wouldn’t find it fulfilling because there are other kinds of work which can provide things that writing can’t. And if you can earn money from another source, you’re free to pursue your vision unimpeded by commercial concerns. Ironically, if your work is good, there’s a good chance it will sell.
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7 creative things to do and see to take your mind off how terrible 2016 has been

Let’s be honest here. 2016 hasn’t been the best of years. What started with a spate of celebrity deaths has also seen the escalation of conflict in the middle east, the election of a near-definite tyrant in the Philippines, the increasing divide between the richest 1% and the rest of the global population, the passing of the carbon threshold, Brexit, the rise of the alt-right in numerous Western Democracies, and even the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America.

As we discussed recently on The Extra Secret Podcast, it’s important we don’t bury our heads in the sand over these concerning trends – and avoid giving into apathy. We also pointed out that the creative arts have the power to bring enlightenment and to fight the malignant forces that are currently stirring.

And in addition to their revolutionary power, artistic projects also serve as pretty marvellous distractions – providing some much needed positive energy for those of us who are well in need of it as 2016 enters its final chapters.

So, without further ado, we have compiled a list of creative projects and events that will help ensure you end 2016 on a much better note than we perhaps started on. Do check them out!

1. Live reading of Goldsmith prize-shortlisted novel, The Absent Therapist

What is it? Celebrated author Will Eaves will be delivering an animated reading of his Goldsmith Prize-shortlisted novel, The Absent Therapist. We speak from experience when we say this is an opportunity not to be missed.

When is it? Late January 2017 (date TBC) at Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace

2. Pop-up photography gallery at gorgeous cocktail bar and former cinema in Walthamstow, London

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A sneak preview of Vagabond Images photography.

What is it? The creative mind behind photography project and site Vagabond Images, Michael Dodson, is hosting a pop-up gallery at a gorgeously renovated former cinema. With Christmas around the corner, and a proven fact that giving a gift of photographic artwork makes you over 37% sexier, the gallery offers you the chance to view and purchase prints (both framed and unframed), as well as canvases and greeting cards.

When is it? 25 – 27th November at Mirth, Marvel & Maud in Walthamstow, London.

3. Spread the word: creative writing workshop

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What is it? Looking for a writing session that will trigger something new in your writing and your voice, and perhaps get you started on a new project? Give yourself an early festive treat, and join Spread the Word for their popular and inspiring creative writing session.

When is it? 6th December at the Albany Performing Arts Centre, London.

4. An evening with acclaimed novelist Sally Vickers

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What is it? Salley Vickers’s first novel, Miss Garnett’s Angel, was an international word of mouth bestseller, and she has since established herself as one of the UK’s leading novelists, in the tradition of Penelope Fitzgerald and Marilynne Robinson. She will be holding a book reading event in the world-heritage historic city of Bath in the UK.

When is it? 7th December at Toppings Bookshop in Bath.

5. Writing poetry: Shakespeare’s women

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Stunning venue: Westminster Cathedral

What is it? An intense writing workshop with writing exercises led by publisher and poetry editor Katherine Lockton. The workshop will look at Shakespeare’s women in his plays and discuss how he portrays the female gender. Focusing on writing new material, participants will come away with a body of creative work (2 or 3 first drafts.) A limited number of places are available to ensure the tutor has ample time for each student. All levels welcome.

When is it? 11th December with organisers from the Poetry Library at Westminster Cathedral, London.

6. Ernesto Neto, “The Serpents’ Energy Gave Birth to Humanity” art installation

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One of Ernesto Neto’s many immersive sculptures.

What is it? Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has a solo exhibit of new crocheted fabric sculptures, immersive installations and wall works.

When is it? Neto’s exhibition is open until December 14th at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York.

7. Opportunity to see one of the most iconic paintings in the world, the Goldfinch

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What is it? The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius is held as one of the most iconic – and most important – paintings in the world. It is now on show in Scotland for the first time ever – and admission is completely free. What more could you ask for?

When is it? Fabritius’s painting is on display until the 18th December at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

 

Your event here?

Are we missing something? If you have an event or creative project you’d like us to feature, let us know and get in touch!

Reality through photography

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Urban emotion – photography via Vagabond Images

There have never been so many photographs taken. With so many of us now using the latest in “smart” mobile phone technology (we use the term “smart” in quotation marks because is there really anything that smart about supporting an industry that is helping to destroy the planet?), we have, it seems, all become photographers. In fact, through various mediums like Instagram and social media in general, photography has perhaps never been so popular. Yet this is not to say the overall quality of photographs has improved. In fact, the proliferation of “everyman” photographers has perhaps changed the way we perceive what is – and has been – one of the most important artistic mediums of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Psychologists have argued that our reliance on smartphone cameras to take photographs of ourselves and of our lived experiences is both narcissistic and damaging to our personal memories. While studies show that people who take “selfies” are more likely to be psychopaths, the fact that so many people now choose to photograph their food instead of eating it, and choose to film or take pictures of the historical monuments they visit, beautiful natural landscapes they see or nights out with friends they experience, has also been linked to a psychological misremembering of lived experiences. In other words, our reliance on smartphone technology to see the world for us means we don’t actually take in what it means to be alive. We are denied the experience of living.

This is an incredibly disturbing concept, especially since photography has been one of the most important cultural phenomena of the last century or so. Not only does it allow people to communicate what is important to them through angles and perspectives we would not otherwise see, it also helps preserve history, facilitates communication and – when done truly artistically – moves people in ways that words sometimes cannot. While a picture of someone’s bacon and egg brunch will not change the world, the camera in the hands of, say Steve McCurry, Annie Leibovitz, Robert King, David LaChappelle, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange or Mark Seliger, truly can make us stop and re-evaluate the way we see the world; the way we think about everyday life, or even the grander existential ideas that we are faced with.

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Photography moves people in ways language sometimes cannot. Image via Vagabond Images.

Photography, in short, matters. And while modernity’s narcissism may muddy the waters of the way we perceive the art form, it is critical we do not lose sight of its potential to help us see the world more clearly. To imagine a world devoid of photography as a genuine art form is to imagine a world lesser in its cultural impact, seemingy halved through the loss of its reflection through the expert’s camera lens. There are few other artistic mediums that help us to process and reflect reality – even though there are also so few other mediums that, through its proliferation and adulteration, are also able to obscure reality so fundamentally.

There is clearly therefore a delicate balancing act that we must contend with when we think of photography as an art form and as part of our everyday lives. When photography was first invented two centuries ago, it was hailed as a revolution in terms of the way mankind perceived both time and place. And it is undoubtedly true that the visual impact of photography is a vital instrument to all of those people who seek to evaluate the world and make sense of it. Indeed, as a potent symbol of what is and what is not significant, the photograph can work in ways that language simply cannot.

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Photography helps us evaluate the world, and make sense of it. Image via Vagabond Images.

The French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson once said that “it is an illusion that photos are made with the camera […] they are made with the eye, heart and head”. It certainly seems true that it is the ability to feel and think as well as see that makes a truly great photograph – for through this we are able to engage in the adventure of examining reality, making the familiar strange and vice versa.

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“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera […] they are made withe the eye, heart and head”. Image via Vagabond Images 

A wonderful example of this is the work of Vagabond Images – the photographic collection of the photographer Mike Dodson. The myriad different styles of photography available, from mysterious, emotional urban landscapes to vivid depictions of the natural world, right through intimate portraits of human beings – in all their intricate, flawed and magnificent states of being – the collection contains within it everything that photography should be.

You may have noticed we are pretty big fans of this photographic work – as we’ve been featuring a small collection of the images in this very article. You can treat this as a sneak peak of what’s on offer. We love a good sneak peak as much as the next person, after all.

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Photography can be so much more than a picture of sausages and beans taken on a smartphone. Image via Vagabond Images.

The really good news here is that Vagabond Images will be hosting a pop up gallery in Walthamstow, London, on the weekend of the 25th November in Mirth, Marvel & Maud. We here at Nothing in the Rulebook thoroughly recommend you checking it out. After all, it’s a proven fact that photography makes you 62% better (better at what you might ask? Well, just generally better). Don’t take out word for it of course – check it out for yourselves!

Turning ideas into reality: the four stages of creativity

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‘Krakow Sunset’ – Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images, via Flickr

One of the defining features of humanity is our ability to create; and to turn flashes of inspiration and new ideas into solid creative constructions: be they works of art; photography; writing; film; dance or any other one of the forms through which creativity can be channelled.

Yet just as creativity is an intrinsic part of who we are; so too is the difficulty in actually working through the creative process. “Creative Block” seems to be utterly tied with creativity, and we will all have encountered it in some form or other during our lives.

We’ve previously documented how various great writers and artists have tried to circumnavigate the various travails of creativity by developing rigid routines; but is there a more general structure we can, as aspiring creatives, use to culture our ideas and inspiration, and turn them into creative works of art?

Well of course there is! We wouldn’t have started writing a post about it if there wasn’t, would we?

In fact, the question of how to master the strange process through which the conscious develops with the unconscious; the voluntary becomes entwined with the involuntary; and we are able to somehow bring something physical out of the mystical realm of the imagination, was pondered 90 years ago in 1926 by the founder of the London School of Economics; Graham Wallas.

68 at the time, Wallas penned a rather incredible book called The Art of Thought – an insightful theory outlining what he saw as “the four stages” of the creative process. He based this theory on both his own empirical observations, as well as by drawing on the accounts of famous inventors and polymaths.

Sadly, the book is now long out of print, and only available in a handful of public libraries. You can, if you’re lucky (and rich), purchase one of the few surviving copies; but be prepared to spend around £1000 or so.

However, not so sadly, the general outline of Wallas’s model has been preserved in a chapter of the 1976 collection of essays titled The Creativity Question. Within this tome are to be found an invaluable selection of meditations on and approaches to creativity by some of history’s greatest minds; and we heartily recommend you purchasing a copy of your own (it won’t cost you a fortune).

Yet what caught our eye was Wallas’s outline of the four stages of the creative process, which he sees as being preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. These stages can be seen as essentially universal across all forms of creativity. They proceed as follows:

  1. Preparation
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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. Via Flickr

Of course, some might argue that you can never prepare yourself for creativity or inspiration: ideas, surely, are known most of all for their ability to fly out at the most unexpected of moments, catching us off guard as we idly clip our begonias. However, consider the way in which ideas so often come to us shortly after doing or seeing something that inspired us. There is a reason so many ‘advice for writers’ articles place “reading” as one of the most important parts of writing: it is part of the process of preparation.

To return to gardening imagery, for a moment, during the preparation stage we ready the mental soil for the sowing of creative seeds; and the subsequent growth of ideas. Wallas describes this as “investigation in all directions”; by which he means the accumulation of intellectual resources out of which we are able to construct new ideas. Through this deliberate, fully conscious process, the unconscious is exercised, and the involuntary production of ideas and inspiration made possible.

It entails research, planning, and developing the right frame of mind and holding the right level of attention. Wallas writes:

“The educated man has, again, learnt, and can, in the Preparation stage, voluntarily or habitually follow out, rules as to the order in which he shall direct his attention to successive elements.”

  1. Incubation
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‘Dickens’s Dream’ by Robert William Buss. 

Once we have prepared ourselves, the next part of the process is a period of unconscious processing – the time we get the clippers ready and head into the garden; the times we sit quietly by ourselves and listen. It requires no direct or deliberate effort; it takes place in our unconscious; in our souls.

Wallas notes that the stage has two divergent elements – the “negative fact” that during Incubation we don’t consciously deliberate on a particular problem, and the “positive fact” of a series of unconscious, involuntary – Wallas terms it “foreconscious” and “forevoluntary” – mental events taking place. He writes:

“Voluntary abstention from conscious thought on any problem may, itself, take two forms: the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better.”

Wallas proposes a technique for optimising the fruits of the Incubation stage by deliberately building interruptions of concentrated effort into our workflow:

“We can often get more result in the same way by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.”

  1. Illumination
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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. Via Flickr

This is the stage that makes you drop your trowel/hoe/spade/cultivator (delete as appropriate), and gasp at the sudden exhilaration that comes with stumbling upon a new idea or creative thought.

Wallas based this stage on French polymath Henri Poincare’s concept of “sudden illumation” – the flash of insight that the conscious self can’t conjure itself and the unconscious self can only produce once all the elements gathered during the Preparation stage have been nurtured during the Incubation stage. The famous “Eureka” moment.

Wallas writes:

“If we so define the Illumination stage as to restrict it to this instantaneous “flash,” it is obvious that we cannot influence it by a direct effort of will; because we can only bring our will to bear upon psychological events which last for an appreciable time. On the other hand, the final “flash,” or “click” … is the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains. The series of unsuccessful trains of association may last for periods varying from a few seconds to several hours.

[…]

Sometimes the successful train seems to consist of a single leap of association, or of successive leaps which are so rapid as to be almost instantaneous.”

  1. Verification
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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images. Via Flickr

The final stage of the creative process shares a more deliberate, conscious effort of focused will, as was necessary during the Preparation stage. It involves the practical art of testing whether or not the idea created during phases two and three is actually any good or not. For scientific discovery, this means testing the chemistry or maths behind it; for art, the act of putting paintbrush to blank canvas; and for the writer, the act of “putting one word after another”, as Neil Gaiman advised.

Wallas writes:

“It never happens that unconscious work supplies ready-made the result of a lengthy calculation in which we only have to apply fixed rules… All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations. As for the calculations themselves, they must be made in the second period of conscious work which follows the inspiration, and in which the results of the inspiration are verified and the consequences deduced. … They demand discipline, attention, will, and consequently, conscious work.”

All together now

Wallas is keen to note that it is not possible to conjure creativity through any one of these stages alone – regardless of how well one executes that particular stage. None of them exist in isolation from the others, because they are each part of a much grander mechanism of creativity, which is built from innumerable complex, perpetually moving bits and pieces. He writes:

“In the daily stream of thought these four different stages constantly overlap each other as we explore different problems. An economist reading a Blue Book, a physiologist watching an experiment, or a business man going through his morning’s letters, may at the same time be “incubating” on a problem which he proposed to himself a few days ago, be accumulating knowledge in “preparation” for a second problem, and be “verifying” his conclusions on a third problem. Even in exploring the same problem, the mind may be unconsciously incubating on one aspect of it, while it is consciously employed in preparing for or verifying another aspect. And it must always be remembered that much very important thinking, done for instance by a poet exploring his own memories, or by a man trying to see clearly his emotional relation to his country or his party, resembles musical composition in that the stages leading to success are not very easily fitted into a “problem and solution” scheme. Yet, even when success in thought means the creation of something felt to be beautiful and true rather than the solution of a prescribed problem, the four stages of Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and the Verification of the final result can generally be distinguished from each other.”

The role of the creative and our place in culture

'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35'

‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35’

Creatives of all forms remain in a constant, symbiotic tango with human nature and culture. All of human thought remains distinctly entwined with that strange, living thing we call culture. Literature, art, music, photography – these strands of culture both reflect who we are, in our values, our hopes, fears, ideals, and shapes who we become by influencing us and immersing us in what becomes an agreed upon notion of how we define ourselves. Culture mythologises certain values, while negating others – shaping our perceptions of the world, and in turn leading us to create – through writing and art, etc – our own culture.

This is rather succinctly summed up by E.B White, co-author of the must-have book for all aspiring writers ‘The Elements of Style’. In considering the responsibility of the writer, White asserts: “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

In nuce, then, what we have is a constant dialogue between our nature and what we come to believe is our nature. A notion captured by physicist Dave Bohm in a 1977 lecture: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… what we believe determines what we take to be true.”

The role of the creative

Within these constructed realities, then, creatives find themselves in a curious position of being at once channellers of a culture they did not create, and simultaneously being creators of that same culture. For writers and creatives, then, such a position comes with much responsibility. As White notes:

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down […] The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.”

“A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

The creative custodian

Creatives, then, can see themselves as custodians, or secretaries, or interpreters, of culture. There is an ideal at the heart of this notion: that the role of the creative is to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why.

Yet, in a digital world of easy blogging and clickbait headlines, there must surely be a concern that the responsibility creatives have for maintaining standards and baked-in accountability has fallen away, replaced by journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. The easy, instant gratification of Tumblr and other mediums also perhaps denigrate the creative integrity of photography and art – as writer and photographer Mike Dodson opines in an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook: “The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer.”

There is an implicit accountability instilled within the heart of the creative that must, therefore, be recognized. A kind of truth standard that should be adopted before putting pen to paper, paintbrush to easel, finger to iPhone camera and Instagram upload. Ultimately, of course, the choice is ours as to which standards and expectations we adopt in creating whatever art we use to define ourselves. But it should be remembered that these choices will, fundamentally, “inform and shape life.”

Creatives In Profile: Interview with Mike Dodson

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

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

Our new ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series offers creatives the opportunity to discuss their life and art at length. And it is an honour to introduce our latest interview – with writer, editor and photographer, Mike Dodson.

Mike runs Vagabond Images – his photographic work, which is used by myriad different organisations from the BBC to Pearson. Cutting his teeth as a copywriter and editor, he wrote in various wage brackets for various publications of various respectability,including Beware The Cat, Time Out, the Easy Jet in-flight magazine, and Square Meal. He now writes short stories, maintains a blog, and continues to contribute to a range of organs, from Viz and Private Eye to the Metro newspaper and sundry other voices.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

Via quite a significantly misspent youth in the punk, goth and metal scenes, I developed a strong desire to write, and somehow ended up in London studying Media Communications at Scumbag College. I fell out of there with half a pretend degree, and found myself surfing the very edge of the dot-com boom as a copywriter, where for three years companies fell apart around me, until I settled down into an editorship for a while. My father introduced me to photography in the early part of the new century, and, hindered by a complete inability to draw, photography became my medium of choice.

I still live in London, now with my beautiful wife Cat, and together we drink too much and associate with misfits. I’m a hugely disappointed, hopelessly romantic, pathetically optimistic misanthrope, and think that humanity has so much potential if only it just decided to apply itself.

INTERVIEWER

How do your passions for writing and photography complement one another?

DODSON

A lot of my writing is relatively visual in its discourse. I’m quite passionate about music, and my tastes are influenced hugely by detailed and coherent lyrical content, which has in turn influenced both my writing and photography. I think generally the two should stand separately beyond children’s books, although I know they don’t. A photograph should tell you of itself just as writing should; good writing should not need illustration, and good photography should not need description.

Berlin-Hauptbahn. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Berlin-Hauptbahn. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any other creative passions?

DODSON

I used to hit things and make a noise behind some musicians for a while, and retain an irritating habit of playing nearby surfaces when I’m thinking. I retain my interest in music, but of late I’ve become interested increasingly in moving photographic composition, and will be developing my work there in the near future.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

DODSON

Anyone I’m able to or think I could have a drink with. I dislike pomposity, but I’m a fan of experimentation – one of the main influences I’ve taken in photography is perhaps Roy Lichtenstein’s snapshot/comic frame approach. The concept of framing a moment intrigues me – the interesting side of that most tedious of conversations ‘Yah, but what IS art?’

I like descriptive and passionate song lyrics, the clean lines of art deco, and the rebellion of punk. In terms of people, I’ve written some terrible, terrible poetry at girls I’ve wanted to sleep with – does that count?

'Boy'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Boy’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Your work as Vagabond Images highlights numerous different photographic themes – from landscape pictures of British and American countryside, to intense urban scenes, sinister backdrops packed with brooding emotion, as well as imaginative profiles and shots of the people who live in all these different worlds. What catches your eye as a photographer?

DODSON

I’m quite intrigued by the arse-end of capitalism; The Man Behind The Curtain. Money is actually very, very weird if you look at it for more than a few seconds, and the concepts it relies on are quite literally surreal. This seems to me to be at significant odds with our nature as animals, and of all the places in the world to view this, one of the world’s leading financial capitals is one – have you ever been to The City at the weekend? It’s a ghost town – the quietest place you could imagine. Then at 7am on a Monday morning it’s covered in people with globally-reaching influence.

I’m quite a fan of high contrast images, as I find them easier to understand and digest than overly busy or detailed compositions. Contrary to this, however, the romantic in me finds open landscapes wonderfully desolate, and one of the things I like about the USA is how absolutely vast it is. In America you can drive for hours and hours – quite literally – through nothing very much at all, seeing absolutely no one, and getting absolutely nowhere significant. I love to just sit on a train or coach, staring out of the window, getting lost. This discourse applies to Europe too (With the notable exception of the Berlin-Warsaw train journey, which – other than the changing signage – is singularly crap).

'Accountant': Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Accountant’: Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

In Georege Perec’s ‘La Disparation’ the question is asked ‘Why do you take photographs so constantly, so obsessively? And the reply returns ‘so that I’ll see what I’ve seen’. Why do you take photographs? What draws you to the form?

DODSON

Photographs provide the opportunity for further exploration and re-examination, presentation and composition provide the opportunity for interpretation of a subject, and looking through a viewfinder makes whatever you see into a potential picture. In terms of form – form is often a fleeting moment – with people I like to fire off a lot of candid shots when people are socialising, as micro expressions can be so fleeting and yet so very powerful – it just takes that one pause to convey the truth, that one look when they both get the joke, or the glance that betrays their true feelings.

For architecture, high contrast is often visually arresting, and thus useful for that type of shot. The great thing about architecture is that it is static, and since so much of form can be dictated by lines, architectural photography allows you to fully explore these.

INTERVIEWER

The use of mirror images is used frequently in your work; as are moments of contrast – for example between darker and lighter shades – do you believe that there is a mirror image to everything? Is this world always a ‘world of opposites’? What role does juxtaposition play in art and – indeed – life?

DODSON

A mirror is a magical item – it provides us with a view of the unseen.  As animals our primary sense is vision, and a mirror simultaneously makes us more powerful, by providing us with greater visual knowledge, and potentially more vulnerable from the unknown and potentially threatening.  It expands our vision; it provides us with a glimpse into another, unseeable world. The metaphors a mirror can provide are easy to relate to through knowledge of the other – good/evil, light/dark, obscure/clear, etc.

It can also be used to great effect as a cheap trick in horror films, which – to Cat’s delight – I fall for. Every. Single. Time.

'Glastonbury Thorn'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Glastonbury Thorn’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

Your compilation of writings, are – in the way they so often pieces of ‘micro non-fiction’ – almost photographic. They provide glimpses and snapshots into real, lived events. Do you think your writing process is photographic?

DODSON

Photography translates literally as ‘Drawing with light’. If I had any ability I would draw (my artistic talent has a significant blind-hedgehog-in-a-bag aspect to it, and thus descriptive writing and photography have been my workarounds). I’ve always been intrigued by capturing that one moment, the perfect timing, and in the climax of the story. Just as a play is constructed of ‘scenes’, ultimately everything conceived visually is a type of photograph, and writing is a way of drawing pictures in other people’s minds.

INTERVIEWER

Images and words read differently, they may not fuse, but they co-exist. Do you think there is a disjunction between word and image? What do you make of the relationship between what is written and what is seen?

DODSON

While a photograph may capture the moment wonderfully, it won’t necessarily furnish the audience with all the information – look at the recent furore over the photograph of Aylan Kurdi. In terms of history it’s often quite hard to fully detail situations, although with fiction – well – everyone knows the difficulty of making the book into a film, because everyone’s imagination is different. A significant difficulty with journalistic photography is how far it’s acceptable to stage a photograph, and one quickly enters a Schroedinger-esque situation.  Writing, however, is in itself fallible as it is written from memory – Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts is wonderfully detailed for something written after the event. However, in terms of journalism, the World Wide Web and internet have changed it forever and completely – now one can experience real-life reportage instantly from the scene without it really affecting anyone involved at all.

INTERVIEWER

In much of your writing, there is the strong pervading sense of the ‘tragi-comic’ in your collection. So many of Shakespeare’s tragedies could easily become comedies and vice-versa. Your work captures the delicate balance between the two. Yet how do we tread this fine-line between tragedy and comedy?

DODSON

As a student, and as an idiot, I did the very minimum work required at university, at the very last minute, because – well – I’m an idiot. One day before a piece of work was due, I was in the library, searching frantically for a book to plagiarise, and on finding it flipped to the pages needed and read it as I hurried between the shelves, returning to my desk. At the end of the shelves was a portable step, over which I tripped and flew – absolutely flew – out from between the shelves, sailing past two very pretty (Of course they were very bloody pretty) girls. Seeing me explode out of nowhere, at a height of about three feet, and crashing head-first into a crumpled heap at the foot of a desk, one girl gasped in horror and concern, while the other instinctively pointed and laughed.

How should we tread the line? Honestly; as those two girls did.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. As Bailey expressed his hatred of digital for bringing everyone to the same level, so that level becomes ever more refined. Digital still has a long way to go to match actual film, and because of the physical discourse, filmic photography is becoming increasingly exclusive. Journalistic photography is now pretty well entirely open to the public, and increasingly reliant on celebrity culture.

In terms of digital trends, I notice that currently over-sharpening images is currently en vogue, while thankfully the awful profligacy of HDR seems to have bitten the dust, along with the adoration for the tilt-shift filter in Photoshop.  The problem and the blessing of digital is that it is so very easy now to dramatically alter a shot that it’s difficult to know when to stop, and also judge what a photograph now actually is.

If you want to get into photography you need to do a lot, a lot. The difference between a photographer and someone with a camera is the amount they shoot – if you take the shot a hundred times from a hundred different angles, to try and make sure that the right one’s in there, then you’re on the right road. Digital photography makes this all a lot easier.

If people start asking you to take photographs for them, then start asking them for money. You don’t ask a plumber to come ‘round and fix your boiler on the proviso that you’ll tell your mates about how great he is – don’t let them tell you such. And if anyone comments that that photo you took is really good, and remarks that you must have a really good camera, then legally speaking – legally speaking you can kill these people.

'Mirror'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘Mirror’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

How about when it comes to writing? Are there any emerging trends you’re particularly interested in?

DODSON

The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a writer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a writer.  The internet has enabled anyone with an opinion to express it and potentially be listened to – even the Katie Hopkins puppet commands a sizable audience on Twitter, and makes a sizable income for whomever the operator is. I’m quite interested in the effects that texting, Twitter and the rise of emojis have had on communication, and the fluidity of language – the concept of replacing words with numbers is as fascinating as it is irritating, and the idea of expressing sarcasm pictorially is just downright weird.

INTERVIEWER

How is the digital age impacting the writing and photography industries?

DODSON

Democratisation – there is a huge amount of noise now, the channels feeding on them are increasingly specialist, and the content increasingly diluted. The difference between professional and amateur is becoming very blurred. If you can pay your bills by doing what you do, you’re a professional. If you can’t, you’re not. The digital age thrives on vanity and narcissism, and our self-expression has been sold to us as the most important part of our id, by cynically manipulating our ego. The visceral pornography of instant gratification is encompassing in modern society now.

INTERVIEWER

When you write, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when compiling your initial drafts?

DODSON

‘Write in haste, edit at leisure.’ Michael Stipe of American rock band REM talked of ‘Vomit songs’ – where the whole lot would just come out in one hit. While successfully doing so would be incredible, it’s worth assuming that you won’t, and getting everything down as it comes – it’s awful having that excellent idea just before you go to sleep, and waking up remembering that you had to remember something. I heard that Stephen King has notebooks all over his house, which he harvests on a regular basis (This may be complete bollocks, but on a personal level I have practiced doing so ever since having read of it). Then edit, edit, edit. Rewrite and edit. Then wonder if it’s good enough for a first draft, have a huge attack of the nerves, and go back and edit it again. Do you know how long this piece of crap is taking me to write? I’ve been working on it since 1996!

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

Generally I’m propping up a mantelpiece with a whisky, surrounded by a host of pretty young women all hanging on every word I say. Whether or not I actually am at the time I write is a matter of mere pedantry.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

I think the democratisation I mentioned earlier is a significant aspect now. As the physical book becomes increasingly a fashion-statement for hipsters, so publishing and distribution is becoming easier and easier, as the internet allows you to write and publish your own work – either by website or on Kindle. I think as the collective attention span shortens, increasingly skilled editing will become prized – Strunk & White notwithstanding.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

DODSON

Creativity is simply creating. It’s not always a good thing – there’s a lot of absolute shite out there, but by the same token there are some wonderful, uncelebrated, absolute diamonds – which so many of us are. Wordsworth said that good poetry is born of strong emotion recalled in a time of tranquillity. My writing is often such; my photography less so – my photography requires a lot more elbow grease – pounding the streets and taking time to take and retake and look at and take. Eventually – hopefully – I will find among what I’ve shot The Shot. Sometimes I won’t, and that’s tough.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

DODSON

If you make money from strangers for writing, you’re a writer.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

I’m terribly embarrassed to say that I don’t – I write what I write. That other people like it is nice – that other people have paid me on occasion for it is nice. But it’s what I do because it’s, er – what I do. Aim to have your work speak for itself.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

Much of my writing is at the very least semi- if not entirely autobiographical. I will take artistic license here and there if necessary, but I’m not imaginative enough to come up with actual, real fiction – there’s always some basis of me in it. Even in my appalling and dark stuff – we all have dark thoughts, and that we are unwilling to face them or talk of them interests me – the disconnect between the social requirement for honesty and politeness is wonderfully flawed – as detailed by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

'On The Road II'. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

‘On The Road II’. Photography: Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

I’ve just started working as a cameraman for a fledgling production company. It’s in its infancy yet, and the work is an entirely new discipline to that of stills, but the mechanisms and structures are there – hopefully we’ll have a productive year, produce some award-winning stuff, quickly become rich and the most famous outfit in Britain, and Winona Ryder will finally stop playing hard-to-get and start returning my bloody calls.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

DODSON

She shouted at him – he flinched.

INTERVIEWER

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

DODSON

You can only break the rules when you know the rules and you’ve followed the rules and you’ve lived the rules, so write, write, write, and edit, edit, edit. Remember that you are a font of absolute crap, but don’t ever forget that you also have such absolutely wonderful beauty.

Alternatively, if in a hurry:

  1. Red wine
  2. Cigarettes
  3. A deep yearning.