David Antrobus was born in Manchester, England, raised in the English Midlands and currently resides near Vancouver, Canada. He writes music reviews, articles, creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. The lessons he learned from working for two decades with abused and neglected street kids will never leave him.
He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the E Book revolution and genre.
Do you see any analogies between the changes in publishing caused by the E Book revolution and the music industry?
Unfortunately for me, this question immediately reveals the deep split in my persona I was hoping to hide, or at least mask for a while. Because I have two answers to this: yes and no.
First off, the positive analogies: I came of age in the punk era in the United Kingdom, and although I didn’t fully understand all the implications back then, I knew something big was happening. A democratization occurred throughout popular music when punk made its way across the Atlantic, largely from New York City, and caught light with a bored and demoralized British youth demographic. It’s well-documented to the point of cliché, but all of a sudden, anyone could form or join a band. We could grab an old cheap guitar with ten layers of paint peeling off its body thanks to the ten previous owners, paint it again, plug into a crappy amplifier and thrash away, learning as we went. One or two chords was plenty at first. This was revolutionary to us, having absorbed the previous generation’s insistence on musical virtuosity. It gave us permission not only to be crap, but to be exuberant or to be pissy or even to be sweet, but also to tell the grey men who wanted our spiky heads permanently bowed to go fuck themselves.
Now, of course, this led to some terrible music. But it also led to some great music. Which is only a lesser point, anyway. More importantly, it led my whole generation, or at least those of us who bought into that DIY ethic, to an idea that we can all engage, we can all produce instead of merely consume. I often wonder whether the same impulse lies behind the concept of the internet itself. That these are key victorious battles in a war that is ongoing and that recently resulted in the defeat of SOPA in the United States. An interesting tangent.
So here we are in this new revolution, and there are a few parallels. Independent authors and publishing houses have shaken traditional publishing to its roots. The old guard (giant publishing houses) and their gatekeepers (literary agents, publicists) have been scattered far and wide. Along with the opening of those gates, as the hordes have swept into the once-fortified camp, some terrible writing has been let in. Quality has certainly suffered amid the sheer quantity, a situation with both positive and negative aspects. All of which has its analogue in the punk explosion of the late ’70s. It also contains the possibility that the dilution of quality will self-correct and a better balance may be reached as all this foment continues to play out. It’s exciting, liberating and fascinating, pretty much how we felt in 1977 right after the Sex Pistols metaphorically flipped off a puritanical and narrow-minded middle England via that infamous Bill Grundy interview.
But now I arrive at the negative. First of all, it’s pretty obvious to most observers that punk rock as a musical form didn’t last long as a major cultural force. It was a deck clearer more than anything, itself an upsurge of a historic impulse in the arts. Co-opted by media conglomerations into a diluted version of itself, it proved to be a rallying call and a new version of an older aesthetic that could be handily appropriated by other artistic movements, but music itself didn’t stand still. For fun, we could trace its waxing and waning throughout the intervening years and perhaps even make a bold claim that hip-hop, urban street music, was itself seeded and buoyed by the punk aesthetic, by the idea of youth taking a degree of ownership in its own culture.
Sadly and crucially, however, there are missing aspects to the analogy. First of all, there is currently little obvious transgression in the indie writer community. No obvious equivalent of the joyous abandon and even nihilism that were present in the punk culture. No swastikas, no bondage clothing, no spitting, no pogoing, no drugs, no safety pins in the Queen’s iconic visage, no anarchy. Or their equivalents. It seems all very conformist and even watered down. Which, to me, is disappointing. Shouldn’t we be changing the rules? I hear fellow indie writers urging each other to not only write for a specific target audience, but even to take on that audience’s collective wishes and change the direction of a plot or save a character once marked for death. When Stephen King wrote Misery, he was onto something. “Your Number One Fan” can make you write a completely different book, apparently! But, further interesting digressions aside, I can’t help feeling an opportunity is being missed, not only to revolutionize the commercial and economic aspects of publishing, but to wrestle with its artistic and cultural baggage as well. To attack some sacred cows. eBooks, for example, allow you to manipulate text, create links to alternate endings, play with the less linear aspects digital books offer, etc.
And finally, a point I’ve made before on my blog is that the end game of the punk aesthetic via new wave and college rock and so-called alternative rock appears to have been indie rock, currently a far less boisterous and more anodyne shadow of all its predecessors, for the most part. Even where it’s experimental, it tends to be mannered and narrow in its cultural aspirations, relying on a tired template pretty much unchanged since the Beatles or the Beach Boys. So I wouldn’t want indie writers to aspire to that, either. Perhaps a better model and a more compelling and inventive route, at least in the artistic sense, might be that of electronic dance music as it emerged from disco during that same era and its subsequent myriad genres (techno, house, trance, breakbeat, etc) and micro genres (drum and bass, grime, dubstep, UK funky, etc.,) constantly splitting off and reconstituting at a seemingly accelerating rate, a hydra on fast-forward.
Ha, but I get talking about music and end up further in than I intended and the metaphors start to unravel! I should leave it there. Basically, a “yes and no” answer expanded upon to a ludicrous degree. In other words, let’s stop agonizing and get on the dance floor.
Who are your literary influences?
I’ll attempt to answer this chronologically, which I have no doubt will become problematic at some stage.
Probably my first literary influence was Maurice Sendak. I seriously wonder whether I would have even considered being a writer had I not been exposed to Where The Wild Things Are at an early age. Or certainly whether I would have been drawn to the horror genre in particular. The sheer strangeness of that book still elicits feelings difficult to describe; “an unholy mix of rebellion and disquiet” is probably my best attempt.
Second would be the Pan Book of Horror Stories anthology series. As a kid, my mom would always leave a copy of the latest edition she’d just read by my bedside, so I was introduced to the horror genre pretty early. Actually, many of us were; if you read Grimm’s tales even now, you will rediscover that chilling frisson that is an integral part of our reaction to dark fiction. I have a half-assed theory, incidentally, about the entire genre we blithely and perhaps naively refer to as “fairy tales”.
After that, I’d say Ray Bradbury next. His influence was twofold: he wrote about small town life, the very mundanity of which is thrown into stark relief by the intrusion of something alien or frightening (which also heavily influenced Stephen King). And he did this while playing the language like a musical instrument, one equally at home with Appalachian folk tunes as it is with soft jazz. Ever since my early excursions into his short stories, especially, speculative fiction requires an element of lyricism for me.
I mentioned King, and he is also an obvious influence, a giant of the genre and beyond, the Dickens of his day. I honestly think that his novellas in particular are true legacies of our literature and better than King himself believes them to be.
And then there’s Clive Barker. I’m talking The Books of Blood Barker, not later fantasies Barker, which are too baroque even for me. Again, there’s the facility with the language, the darkest beauty of his prose, but also, by attaching it to what was then transgressive subject matter, he didn’t simply open that particular door, he obliterated it with the mother of all shoulder charges.
Oh, Ramsey Campbell for that unique perspective he brings, that distressingly surreal vision of the world and what might lie beneath everyday urban life. Peter Straub, too. Joe R. Lansdale. There are just too many!
Outside the horror genre, I’ll list some other writers who, at one time or another, have added to my own increasingly versatile palette (I mean that in the humblest sense): Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks/Iain M Banks, Tolkien, Herman Hesse, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, W.S. Merwin, T.S. Eliot, Umberto Eco, Philip Larkin, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, A. M. Homes, Andrew Vachss, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolaño, as well as numerous outstanding individual books: Riddley Walker, Wuthering Heights, The Little Prince, Dune, The Poisonwood Bible, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, In Cold Blood, etc. That should do for now I think. Although, probably not.
Note: This interview was conducted over a period of weeks. When I was first asked this question, both Maurice Sendak and Ray Bradbury were still with us, and it’s now kind of eerie to see I cited them both here so prominently.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
There are more than one, but in order to avoid an excruciatingly confessional answer, I think I’ll stick to the first one. Even so, this is still going to be pretty heavy, and I apologise in advance.
When I was either three or four, my mother was involved in a terrible accident. Wishing to avoid waking her small children in the middle of the night, she ignored the upstairs light switch on her way to the bathroom and misjudged her footing at the top of the stairs. Now, these particular stairs were long, steep and straight. And because the home was a council house (i.e. low income), some sadistic or indifferent or perhaps even stupid architect had included a glass door directly at the foot of the staircase. The same staircase down which my mother pitched headlong that night. The sound of the glass shattering followed by a horrible moaning sound tore me from sleep, and I left my bedroom to investigate, hoping it was a dream. I stood at the top of the stairs and saw my mother in a widening pool of blood, her leg so lacerated I could see white bone inside. And the sounds she made scared me on a level far beyond words. Fortunately, my dad arrived quickly and got me to bring towels from the bathroom with which he wrapped her leg, then soothed her and called 999 (this was grey mid-Sixties England). Skip a few frames, and I remember sitting on a couch with a comic annual open in my lap (The Beano, probably), my short legs not even close to touching the floor, and the sound of the approaching ambulance sirens the second most haunting and distressing sound I’d heard in my little life.
After which I remember almost nothing. My sister and I were separated and shipped out to grandparents, while the only question I had that mattered remained unanswered for far too long: is my mother dead? Is my mother dead? But nobody talked to kids back then. By the time we were returned home, still far from reassured, the damage had already been done. Although my mom was alive and sewn up and relatively okay, I knew from that moment that nothing could be guaranteed, awfulness could visit at any moment, and the descending atmosphere of dread is far, far worse than the trauma event itself. The dead of night can bring appalling things.
All of which I respond to in the art of others and endeavour to recreate in my own darkest works. Dread. Bleakness. The feeling we are helpless in the face of the world’s indifference. That our only defence is to disengage, which is no defence at all, since we lose everything that’s human about us. We must strive to remain emotional creatures and that insistence, that rejection of numbness, is the only endearing and heroic facet of human beings, in the end. The courage to feel while the world disintegrates around us.
If you were to give advice to yourself as a young man what would you say?
I think I just split off into two very distinct people. Mind blown. Thanks for that, Richard. : ) The first person I like to think of as the affable, easygoing version of me that I perhaps was when I was a young man. Not entirely, but most people would have seen me that way. And that persona wants to say don’t change a thing, your life will unfold the way it will unfold, don’t second guess your choices, etc.
But this other persona shakes its head slowly, recognizing those sentiments as well-meaning platitudes. No, things are very rarely if ever “meant to be”. Given all the facts, we can shape our destinies, and given all the facts, would I have followed the same path to this point, or even been at this point? I don’t know.
I worked for two decades under the intense stress of dealing with abused and neglected children and teens. I had my life threatened. I saw two people on two separate occasions carve up their forearms—lengthways—in front of me. I still see all the blood in my dreams sometimes. I saw people under so much mental and emotional turmoil they were literally foaming at the mouth. I’ve witnessed drug overdoses, have known many people who chose to end their lives rather than live with the pain they were carrying, almost all pain that had been inflicted on them by someone else, when they were children. Fair? Obviously not. I know of a woman who picked up her baby and French kissed it in front of the supervised visit worker, in order to demonstrate her love for it. Thinking that would get child protection workers off her back. I had to sit on a scrawny 16-year-old for an hour and a half to stop him attacking everyone else in the group home with a screwdriver. The RCMP (police) weren’t interested, called it a “domestic incident” and refused to attend (I didn’t want him arrested, but calmed). I saw an entire group home lose its collective sanity on PCP one afternoon, where kids were locking themselves in staff offices while other kids dropkicked the door out of its frame to get at them, and others punched out lightbulbs and dripped blood everywhere, and others tried to dive head first from their bedroom windows, while others ran naked in traffic, me and one other staff member trying to preserve some shred of sanity. I knew little boys so screwed up by the sexual abuse they suffered under a grandparent or an uncle that they broke the legs of kittens. Or abused even younger kids under the stairway. I worked with one little boy whose babysitter took hold of him by the ankles and swung his head at the wall with full force. He was under two years old at the time she attacked him. At age six, it took four adult teachers to hold him down whenever he lost it, which was every time he felt threatened, basically.
Of course it’s stressful. You know it’s stressful. Even if you walk out of university, starry-eyed and idealistic, you still know this is going to be hard. When I walked for the first time into that homeless shelter back in England, aged 21, the first person I saw on the old Victorian staircase was a young schizophrenic man around my own age, rocking back and forth, staring, slack-jawed. In shelters, hostels, group homes, drop-ins, arcades, on the streets themselves, I saw real violence. It’s ugly. It’s not glamorous. It makes you sick to your stomach and some scenes never fully go away. A kid kicking a pregnant girl in the stomach. A kid stubbing his cigarette out on the back of someone’s neck. A homemade blade against your ribs. Knowing you could die at that moment. Or that someone else might. The hopelessness. The lack of any real options, the refusal by agencies to help in any meaningful way. The judgments by those living comfortable lives oblivious to the fact eleven year old girls are fellating old men in the backs of limousines in their very community, on their very streets. Cruelty, indifference.
Yeah, you knew it would be stressful. But did you know it would be that stressful? That empathy is quite honestly a curse? That each and every one of these incidents and situations would slowly erode you until you were a long way from that affable, easygoing kid with a big heart who just wanted to help? I would warn that kid, sure, but I wouldn’t say don’t do it. Why? Because it’s life. It’s hope. It’s belief in people. Because if you are fully prepared, you can deal with it, and it’s not all negative. The sheer force of personality and resilience of some of those kids is inspiring. You will bond with some of them almost against your will and their successes will feel like your successes. They will make you crazy, yet you will love them. If only someone else had loved them earlier, however, they might not now need your damaged witness to their broken lives.
But you need to be forewarned, and to have a Plan B in case you almost literally crumble under the weight of it all. And my Plan B was only scrambled together when it was clear I had to walk away or end up broken, too. It wasn’t something I ever believed I needed to fall back on, it was a genuine passion, yet still a hobby.
I mean writing, of course.
Ironically, the first time I realised my writing could perhaps save me (and that jury is still out, to be honest) was just before I left on the stress leave that would become permanent leave. I wrote a piece about the kids in my community who were being sexually exploited. No one was listening. We used to get hundreds if not thousands of people out lining the streets for demos against abortion. But our kids were real, existing, live children and we’d get maybe forty people to march against what was happening to them in our community. So I wrote this piece and it wasn’t very good in retrospect—too angry and awkward—but I sent it off to Andrew Vachss, who I admire greatly, and he was kind enough to publish it on his website. And it was at that point I wondered if I could turn all this pain into something better, by writing it, whether in non-fiction or fiction it didn’t matter. So here we are. I’m not sure I fully answered the question, and I know it got personal, but I sure feel like I lanced a boil or something.
One last thing: I know I risk coming across as bitter here, but this is an opportunity to say something I’ve always been meaning to say. In our society, we talk of heroes. Firefighters are heroes. Medical technicians. They put their physical and emotional health on the line for others. I agree, most of them probably are. I am in absolute awe of those men and women who climbed up the stairs in the World Trade Centre, for example. But no one ever talks about street workers when they think of heroes. It’s an overused term in some ways and underused in others. I don’t think authoritarian types are generally heroes. They’re armed and they have the full force of the law behind them. They are primed to be bullies, if anything, and more often remind me of the abusers who hurt others. Not all of them, of course. (And bless the ones who retain their compassion.) They also get a pension after twenty years. Well, I did twenty years, no pension, and was never armed. I didn’t have the authority of the law to coerce or punish people. I had to bring skills to bear that are excruciatingly difficult. Since I can’t do that work any more due to my PTSD, I have nothing to fall back on. I’m not saying I was a hero, either. Breaking up fistfights and witnessing the pain of others doesn’t qualify you for that, necessarily. Although it might. I just think we need to stop using that word in caricature, maybe stop using it altogether. Sure, we are overlooked. But what of the kids themselves? Some of them are the only true heroes I know, the ones who turned a nightmare into something they could live with, who had their own kids and stopped the awful cycle, who did things like run for Mayor (yes, I know of one) in the very community that hurt them and turned a mostly blind eye. They are the only heroes I know.
Why is this relevant? Well, it’s the part no one tells the young man or woman going into that type of work. They don’t say: you will go unrecognised while some asshole cop who’s maybe hurt twenty people that day saves an old lady from drowning or something and makes the local news. And after a short career will get a pension to take care of him for life. You won’t get that. You won’t be acknowledged. Or compensated. Not in that way, at least. Can you live with that? If you can, go ahead, do good in the world, help protect others. But don’t ever forget, you yourself will not be protected: not even if you’re attacked in the “line of duty”; not only that, but you may even risk being prosecuted yourself if, in self-defence, someone is hurt. And especially not if you can no longer do the work due to the emotional toll and simply disappear from sight, your unmarked absence filled by a new kid clutching his or her diploma in Child and Youth Care. Someone just needs to talk to that kid, is all I’m saying.
Tell us about your novel.
I sometimes wonder whether I’m cut out for novel writing. They are such a huge time commitment and time is something I seem to have less of, each passing day. I’ve probably started and scrapped at least four of the things. In most aspects of life, I prefer the marathon to the sprint, but in novels I might have met my match. That said, I have one novel that won’t lie down and die completely. It’s an undead novel. I don’t mean it’s a novel about zombies or vampires, but that no matter how many stakes I drive into its shallow chest, no matter how many hatchets I take to its rotted cranium, it doesn’t want to accept its own death, and keeps moaning softly at me during inconvenient moments. I think it wants to live. I just don’t know how to make that happen. First of all, I have to go back and change the present tense to past tense, because it’s all wrong. No idea why I wrote it in present tense. Immediacy? Maybe. Then I have to write another two-thirds at least. Thanks to that novel, I swear I’ve thrown more writing away than all my other discarded work combined.
Even the genre is problematic. It begins as gritty (sub)urban realism and is soon plunged into a kind of mythic dark fantasy with dystopian elements. And since its two protagonists are adolescents, you might think it would end up being classified as Young Adult. But the horror component as well as the visceral realism of the scenes set in this world will most likely propel it into a more adult realm. Not that that’s my call. As a writer, I write only the book I want to read and if anyone else enjoys it, whatever their age, it’s all bonus. Assuming it’s ever finished, it will likely be self-published, so there are no gatekeepers other than the market itself to tell me who my audience is. Aside from its complexity, I just worry that it will confuse people. As in, it won’t fit.
Nearer the front burner, I have a collaboration with another writer, still in its fairly early stages: a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel with a perhaps-surprising literary theme. I won’t say any more about that until we nudge it closer to publication.
Otherwise, my fictional energies are turning more and more to short fiction. I love short stories. If the novel is a stunning star field wheeling overhead, short stories are the comets—brief and bright and, when done effectively, unforgettable. My own short fiction tends toward the speculative end of things, from psychological horror to surrealism to noir, even. If the story demands it, I don’t shy away from the grotesque and the grisly (I read the so-called splatterpunks avidly in the late ’80s and early ’90s), but I don’t automatically go there. I prefer an element of dread first and foremost. Atmosphere. That said, I just had a zombie story included in a recent anthology (First Time Dead, Volume 3) which features the usual stomach churning gore we’ve come to expect from the genre, yet which also taps into the underlying sadness at the core of what after all is an erosion of someone’s humanity. It began as a fun, slightly satirical exercise, imagining the tribulations of a suburban soccer mom in a world falling to rack and ruin, but I think it ends up somewhere else entirely. Somewhere pretty dark and full of sorrow. But again, that’s the reader’s call.
How much truth do you think there is in the statement that you have to lose yourself to find yourself?
Wow. When are we going to get: what’s your favourite colour?
But seriously, I love these questions.
Quick answer: yes. Memorably, Khalil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” For some reason I’ve had that memorized since the mid ’80s. Maybe I always knew it would be of comfort one day. As much as I may wish sadness would pass me by, I am actually not envious of perpetually cheerful people, as their experience of the world, by definition, must be a shallower one, assuming you believe Gibran’s poetic aphorism (and it sure feels right on an intuitive level). I’m not even sure how many people are truly happy in the perpetually smiling way someone like the Dalai Lama possesses. In a way, I think that is a trick of the mind. A good trick, I’m certainly not condemning it; I just don’t fully understand it, and that may well be my loss. But in a world of such inequity, of babies macheted in front of their parents, of governments torturing citizens, of a mentally deranged man decapitating and cannibalizing his fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus one lonely Manitoba prairie night, of antibiotic-resisting diseases that allow someone’s body to literally eat itself, how on earth do you achieve that kind of peace? I’m not saying you must dwell on the horrors, but even if you allow them to fleetingly invade your thoughts, how do you then feel at peace with the world?
Maybe the key is in my language itself: how on earth. Peace with the world. Perhaps the vast cosmic perspective endemic to some spiritual disciplines is the impetus for that… I don’t know, detachment, I guess. It makes me nervous because it reminds me of the time when I experienced the events in my book. Due to PTSD and depression, my doctor prescribed SSRIs (antidepressants), which I took for nine months of that year. The thing is, they worked, they stopped the sad bleakness from having any real effect, as if the feelings themselves were uncoupled from me, floating somewhere in the clouds… but they also amputated the good feelings, the joy in music and friendship and the beauty of art and nature… I don’t know, this whole topic is a labyrinth, really. Or a giant circle. Just when you think you know where you stand, the circle takes another turn and you’re off-balance again. I’m beginning to sound like the world’s first Zen atheist, or Taoist agnostic. Although maybe that’s not so unusual.
But a deeper answer also has to acknowledge that losing yourself could result in a state of permanent dissociation and alienation, so I’m not romanticizing it, either. Some people choose to lose themselves via addiction or other self-destructive activities. I’m pretty sure that’s not a great idea. But sometimes, when you least expect it, you get lost. Some event, some memory, something not dealt with, a midlife crisis brought on by reflection, a huge family rift, an accident, losing a loved one, a traumatic event, many things can trigger it. You suddenly find yourself in a thick forest so tangled the light can barely enter. And it’s crucial you find your way out of that dark forest, by whatever means. A trail of breadcrumbs, a creative act, meditation, a child’s love, an exercise and diet regime, whatever. If you find your way out, you will be better equipped and also more humble—not in a retiring way, but in the sense that you now accept and acknowledge your vulnerability, and consequently have greater compassion for others who are genuinely searching for their own route out of that same forest. It perhaps makes you less patient with those who have never entered the forest at all, but I suspect some have visited but won’t, for whatever reason, share their experience.
I don’t know if you find yourself, though. You find a different self. Hopefully, a different self you can live with. But from a creative perspective, you will almost certainly be a better writer/musician/artist/actor, etc. Having been lost and now found, your experience of everything will be richer, more complex. Perhaps informed by a sense of frailty and mortality. It might well be a psychological stage that signifies true adulthood. Here in the west, we probably remain adolescent long past our actual adolescence, and this experience of losing ourselves that awaits so many of us may well mark our emergence into a real profound adulthood. Or perhaps it’s that “way of Grace” Terrence Malick explored in his last film, The Tree Of Life. And yeah, maybe that’s my wishful thinking kicking in, too.
I could keep exploring this, but I think I’ll leave it there. (I don’t actually know what my favourite colour is, by the way. I usually say “black” but that’s more for a cheap laugh than a true answer.)
Do you think part of the rehabilitative process is ensuring perpetrators endure the suffering they inflict or do you think rehabilitation is a lie?
Wow, this one’s an incredibly complex question that I probably won’t get close to doing justice (no pun intended). But I’m up for the challenge. I’m neither a criminologist nor a sociologist but I’ve spent a fair amount of time around people steeped in both disciplines, so if I happen to have absorbed any of their insights, it’s almost entirely down to them.
I don’t think rehabilitation is a lie. I actually think it is a worthy concept and can work for many people. I would go further and say that restorative justice is an even better concept and, again, works for many. But here’s the catch: there are some types of criminal that can never be rehabilitated. And it’s obvious who they are: the serial killers and serial rapists, the sadistic sex offenders, the sexual psychopaths. I don’t really care if they suffer (although I would if one of them hurt a loved one), I just want to see them permanently off the streets.
There does seem to be an increasing impulse, however, to be punitive and vindictive even toward lower-level criminals, to make “them” suffer, as if the class “criminals” were a separate species or something. I feel pretty strongly about this, as some of the most thoughtful and honest people I’ve ever met I’ve met behind bars. “Criminals” are all of us, perhaps in slightly altered circumstances. The one advantage afforded a person in jail is that they have time. This time can be a torment, of course, but it can also be filled with self-examination. And some of the guys I’ve met in the joint have been like self-help experts when contemplating their often-complex route to their current location. I liken a lot of inmates to the kids I worked with: lost, abandoned, abused. They are just those same kids a few years along in their lives. Some of them take the shit they’ve been dealt out on others, and that’s wrong and can be very ugly… yet it’s also human, and the guys who realise it somewhere along the line become very different people, become contemplative and insightful. And far more interesting than your average suburban dad whose primary source of angst is the encroaching moss on his precious lawn. Perhaps that isn’t fair, but it’s my observation all the same.
I’m going to leave this one there, as I’ve struggled to get the exact tenor of my thoughts on this and come to the conclusion they are not completely coherent and will perhaps never be!
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
I think I agree. But it’s only half the equation. I wrote this today, and I think it’s kind of related: “For the writer, trauma and adversity is all good fuel, the darkest densest coal especially, and it feels good when it burns strongest.” So I believe we have ice and fire in our hearts.
The ice is the willingness to set up hurdles and pitfalls for our characters. I defy anyone to tell a compelling story that is absent any adversity whatsoever. The kindest writer is still probably a lot more sadistic than the meanest children’s entertainer. If we were gods, we’d be every bit as capricious and petty as the Greek pantheon. If we treated real live people the way we treat our characters, we’d be considered dangerous and likely sociopathic. But we’re often moralists, and instead of ice, that requires fire… or at the very least a smouldering ember.
I just read your interview with Jack Ketchum and something he said stayed with me: that when we encounter something in real life that pisses us off, we write about it. This feels true. We often try to redress the moral balance, so if a woman is abused horribly by her spouse, who happens to know all the local cops, who consequently turn a blind eye, we not only let her take revenge on the spouse, but probably on the cops too. We bring the ice when we set up the premise—the beatings and torment of this woman who neither asked for nor deserves any of it—but we bring the fire when we place in her hands the tools for retribution. And we sometimes bring further ice when said vengeance is extreme and disproportionately brutal.
By no means is this exclusive to adult fiction, either. Children’s stories are, if anything, even starker in this interplay. Fairy tales are as dark and as moralistic as you can get: “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “The Red Shoes”. Movies, too. Bambi is still a rite of passage. And few stories are as dark as Pinocchio. Here, the ice outweighs the fire, even.
In my zombie story I mentioned earlier, for example, I bring the ice when my main character, a pleasant suburban mom, is bitten by one of the infected in a horribly explosive and violent scene. I hated writing that. But the ice made me do it. The fire, in this case a smouldering ember initially, can be found in the low grade pain of isolation and loneliness, culminating in the raging howl of grief and loss at the disintegration of a family. As awful as it was, I enjoyed writing the fire part. It was cathartic, no doubt.
But you know, this makes me wonder about something else. Perhaps, in the final analysis, writers are not all that different from readers in that regard. Morality tales of revenge served cold (a shot of vengeance on the rocks?) are some of our favourite stories as readers too. When life fails to deliver the required satisfaction, we turn to stories, an impulse that almost certainly begins and is nurtured in childhood. Perhaps those with the keenest sense of this injustice, who bring it with them into adulthood, are more likely to turn to writing fiction. To achieve a simple redress. It’s a fascinating question, isn’t it?
What are you working on right now?
This is the part where I reveal how truly scatterbrained I am. I’d love to be one of those writers who says something like this, “I’m currently working on a series of three novels, all of which are in various stages, all going swimmingly.” Apart from the fact I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “swimmingly” before, my reality is a good degree more attention-deficit than that.
I am still struggling with the sequel to my nonfiction account of a road trip I took to New York City set against the awful events of September 11, 2001 (Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip). The sequel will explore my return to New York for the tenth anniversary of the attacks last September. The idea was to return and report back on how 9/11 had changed the country in general, and that part of the United States in particular. Good idea on paper. Not so great in reality. Oh, don’t get me wrong; the road trip was, if anything, even more spectacular than the one I experienced a decade earlier. But much of my struggle surrounds the overall far bleaker nature of this update. Some of the positive responses I received from readers of the first book came down to the strangely redemptive aspect of what—given its subject matter—ought to have been a pretty grim and pessimistic tale. Yet it somehow managed to find some kernels of hope and love amid the charred and dusty remains. The sequel less so. I’m having great difficulty writing something so monotonously funereal. That isn’t such a gloomy dirge. As dark as I love to go, I still require that glint of something shining, the hint of a signal in deep black space, however feeble. To that end, I am finding the American landscape itself more rewarding and even interesting than the human aspects. All I know is it’s going to take a lot more effort to turn this into something I imagine anyone would want to read. Anyway, that’s my problem, and I don’t want to bore people with my writing process.
My unfinished dark fantasy novel I’ve already mentioned, and also the fact that I have had a couple of stories accepted by anthologies recently (First Time Dead 3 and Music Speaks). The short story form is calling out to me a lot nowadays, and I would like to gather all my stories under one umbrella at some point, publish a collection. As I’ve mentioned already, I love short stories. All evidence points to a spectacular return for a literary form once given its last rites.
What are the main themes that influence your fiction?
Loss and trauma, beauty, memory and love. I’d say the interplay of those five things inform everything I have ever written or will ever write. It explains the (at first glance) odd leap from a nonfiction memoir about a road trip to dark speculative fiction. I actually think I might even be riding a post-millennial, apocalyptic impulse. By that I mean we rarely see ourselves as products of our age. We believe we’ve largely jettisoned the trappings of superstition that have kept us in darkness for so long. I do think we’ve made progress in our age, but it’s by no means a complete victory. I’ve read that the apocalyptic urge reaches ascendancy at the turn of centuries, and especially millennia. And I note not only the endless parade of undead/zombie-themed entertainment, from TV shows to movies to books, alongside other mass-scale global catastrophes mostly fuelled by very real ecological concerns, but even the whole Y2K hysteria, the various pandemics that seem to have followed the turning of the millennium, 9/11 itself, the Asian tsunami, the disaster in Japan. Some of these are, of course, very real, some a combination of natural occurrences and our environmental tampering, others completely chimerical. But we have adopted the dystopian mindset and it’s difficult to shake. However much we live in the moment—and amazingly, we still often do—long-term optimism grows steadily more elusive.
I am drawn to other manifestations of these states of being. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Nolan’s Memento, even Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, were all released around the time the clock moved from the last century/millennium into this one, and all of them dealt with loss, trauma, beauty, memory and love. How memory and trauma are linked: post-traumatic stress as a disorder is virtually predicated on this relationship. If memory is unreliable, as it appears to be, can we perhaps erase the pain of trauma and loss? What is beauty? Can love extend beyond humanity or is it entirely a human concept? Could we create something that will love? And if we could, should we? Is that cruel? Can we only feel great love if we’ve known great loss? What kind of animal are we? Are love and beauty two aspects of the same force, one we also call “life”? Around that same time, we had the band Radiohead, who were perhaps the biggest rock band on the planet then, making records like Kid A and Amnesia. About disappearing completely. About mo(u)rning bells. About spinning plates. About trying to forget. Forget what? Personal distress. And the horrors of the last century, what some have termed the Hemoclysm (literally, “blood flood”). We are restless and terrified still, in many ways. We are migrants even if we want to deny it. Always moving, we can’t sit still, we can’t atrophy. But the more we learn, the lonelier we risk ourselves becoming. There won’t be some great last-minute rescue. Not by god, not by aliens. We truly are the lonely hearts of the cosmos and we’re struggling to grow into that realisation, to grow the hell up in general, and oh how it hurts. Yet oh how essential that we do it. This is what I want to write about, again and again, until, at some abandoned outpost, my own light winks out quietly and permanently at last.
Thank you David for a versatile and insightful interview.
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