When you read an Ian Ayris story you know you are reading something a bit different. He has an original and compelling voice and while he writes great crime narratives, he also writes prose that is confessional, often told in dialect, which he writes with great skill. His stories can be found in many magazines, among them Pulp Metal Magazine and A Twist Of Noir. And he has his first novel out this week, Abide With Me, published by Caffeine Nights. It is a brilliant debut novel that whispers in your ear from the first page and carries you along on its prose, and I highly recommend it. Ian met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about redemption and psychopathology.
Do you think crime fiction is redemptive?
That’s a really interesting question, Richard, one I think is relevant on several levels. Can the act of writing crime fiction be redemptive to the writer? Can the reading of crime fiction be a redemptive experience for the reader? And what about the characters in crime fiction, is it it even necessary for them to undergo a redemptive experience of any kind at all?
When I write, the process is entirely organic. A word sounds in my mind, or I see a face, or hear a phrase. And I just start writing. I follow the voice wherever it leads. Almost without exception, this has led me to tell the stories of characters that are at the point of breaking in two. These are people clinging to the edge of an intolerable existence where redemption and hope have no place. Yet, as the character’s story unravels, I always see a hint that their life might not always be so hopeless. So I write that down as well. Sometimes it’s a tear in the eye, or the realisation of who they’ve become, or a reaction to something which moves them deep inside, something shifting in the darkness, breaking free, something they do not yet understand. In these moments, there is a definite movement towards hope. Always. And so, for me. the act of writing crime fiction becomes a redemptive pursuit. Merely through spilling my own darkness onto the page, a part of me once hidden is now revealed, is given a voice, is recognised as a valid part of who I am.
The reading of crime fiction is a different matter. I’m not sure I really want to read redemptive crime fiction, not in the conventional sense where the good guys win and the perps get their just desserts. But neither do I want to read crime fiction that is so bleak as to have me reaching for the cutlery drawer. For me, as a reader, the whole thing is measured against what is real. Reading unremitting bleakness, to me, just isn’t how I want to spend my time. I want to read about real people. I don’t wish to enter into the self-indulgent whims of an author playing the game of ‘How Bleak Can I Get?’. Real life contains the seeds of redemption in every waking moment. And I want to read about characters that are open to that, open to change.
Do I believe in redemption? Yep. I do.
As for the characters needing to undergo a redemptive experience, that entirely depends on them. If the writer is watching and listening close enough, I believe that almost all characters yearn for a redemptive experience of some kind. We all want to be loved. Even the most psychotic of axe murderers. Perhaps particularly the most psychotic of axe murderers.
Do I think crime fiction is redemptive?
The only hope of it being redemptive, truly redemptive, is if it is written with a sense of what is real. Other than that, it’s just words on a page. And crime fiction can be so much more than that.
Do you think a psychotic axe murderer would despise the person who loves him and could that be turned into a love story?
I think in tackling this question, I would look at the hatred and destruction my psychotic axe murderer metes out as a projection of his own deep sense of self-loathing. Someone with a sense of self-loathing that runs that deep would find it very hard to believe they can ever be loved. That is not to say they cannot be loved, just that they would find the acceptance of that love almost intolerable, experiencing it as of a finger poking a gaping wound. Despise, in this case, is not too strong a word.
Turned into a love story? Anything can be turned into a love story. I would see this scenario as going something like this: the more our axe murderer eschews the love of his lover, the greater the need for the lover to show their love, thus exacerbating the insecurity and the rage within the axe murderer. It is only when the axe murderer is standing over the still, broken body of his lover does he realise her love was true. One more self-inflicted swing of the axe, and we have Romeo and Juliet all over again. Except with more blood. Lots more blood.
Do you think a first person narrative has more immediacy than a third person narrative and what are your different writing experiences of both?
A first person narrative, written well, enables the reader to, literally, see through the narrator’s eyes, feel what the narrator feels, in a sense, for the period of the story or novel, to actually be the narrator. More often than not, I tend to use the first person in my stories purely for this reason, to give the reader and I an immersive experience. The third person perspective also has its place. For me, the third person is ideal for standing outside of the scene, for commentating on a tragedy yet to unfold – made more tragic because the characters involved can only see through their own eyes. The tension, the awful tension, is increased through hinting dispassionately from a distance, leading the characters helpless to a fate they cannot see while the reader looks on, just as helpless. Only third person can achieve this.
I prefer writing first person narrative – indeed, my upcoming debut novel ‘Abide With Me’ is written entirely from this perspective. Writing in the first person allows me, as a writer, to explore the hidden depths of a character, depths in which lie feelings no words can adequately describe. If I can get to that place beyond words, that darkness within us all, and stay there but awhile, I and the character become one. Then the words find themselves. But it is only in the sitting there in the dark with that pain the character and, by association, I feel that enables this to take place. That is why I think it is so important for a writer to write with courage, for therein lies truth. And something written with truth as the ideal has the potential of reaching the reader below the surface of the intellect. Writing in first person, my goal is always to bypass the intellect.
One of the most powerful things I’ve ever read is by the Sufi poet, Rumi. He wrote ‘Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ For me, only writing in the first person has the potential of taking a reader to that field.
Something like that, anyway.
Tell us about ‘Abide With Me’.
Abide With Me is the story of two boys – John and Kenny – growing up in East London in the nineteen seventies and eighties, and their struggle to understand a world once known now falling apart. John is fanatical West Ham supporter from a tight-knit family. Kenny, well, Kenny’s a little bit different. Here’s how John describes him in the early part of the book:
‘It’s like he’s lookin at me and through me and past me all at the same time, like he’s a million fuckin miles away. And there’s these tears in his eyes. Like glue. And tears like that, they don’t never fall.’
The reader does not hear Kenny say a single word throughout the entire book, but he is there – behind every line. Every word. The friendship of the two boys is not what you might call ordinary.
Here’s John describing his feelings when things go a bit pear-shaped for young Kenny:
‘Fuckin cried all the way home, I did, sittin on that train, lookin out the window tryin to make sense of it all.. Weren’t like we was even mates, or nothing, me and Kenny. Not really. I mean, he hardly said a fuckin word to me all them years. But we shared a life. And that sort of means something to a kid, you know.’
The query letter I originally sent out to agents and publishers summarises the later conflicts in the book:
‘John’s out the nick after doing seven years for a bodged robbery. And childhood friend Kenny’s out the nut house, ten years after bashing up the school bully with a dinner tray. Everything’s lookin rosy, until John finds out Kenny’s got a job as bagman for local villain Ronnie Swordfish. John fears the worst. And he’s right.
Kenny, the daft bastard’s handin out money to all and fuckin sundry, including John’s Mum who’s borrowed a large wedge off Ronnie to tide her over while John’s inside. But where’s
Kenny gettin the money from for this little Robin Hood act, if not from Ronnie Swordfish himself?
John knows Ronnie’s got his eye on him, likes the look of him. And when Ronnie helps John out by blowin up the bastard screw that was makin his life inside a living hell, John knew he’d come callin. But a paranoid psycho like Ronnie Swordfish don’t trust easy. So what better test than get John to bring Kenny in? Two birds with one stone.
Faced with handin over his lifelong friend on a plate on Ronnie’s say so or watchin his own mum and sister burn in their beds, John don’t see he has a choice.
Thing is, he don’t even know the fuckin half of it.’
The book is about far more than this, though. It is about the nature of friendship, of family,
of hope, of doing what it takes to get through another day. It is about men, and what it means to be a man. It is about motherhood and sisterhood It is story of redemption. And it is a story of two boys, battered by life, who, when their darkest moments comes, find the courage to be men.
How much does narrative mean to you articulating what has no voice and does this involve the sense of justice?
For me, putting into words that which has no voice is almost my prime motivation for writing. That is why I tend to concentrate on the feelings produced by the empty space rather than describing the circumstances wherein the empty space has manifested. The space may be empty, but the feelings, they seethe and they boil. Again, it’s just a case of sitting there awhile. I have always found putting these feelings into simple, unelaborated, prose the best way of transporting the reader to this oftentimes disturbing place.
And this leads onto my answer to the second part of this question.
To directly transpose these ‘feelings of the empty space’ involves writing with a pen of absolute unwavering truth. Is there a difference between writing with absolute unwavering truth and writing with a sense of justice? I think so. Justice implies right and wrong, good and bad. To write with absolute unwavering truth means to write whatever you find, with no judgement whatsoever.
Who are your literary influences?
Literary influences. Mmm . . . So, many. And ever growing. I love the Russians – Dostoyevsky, Checkov, Turgenev, Solzenhitsyn. And Dickens. love me a bit of Charlie Dickens. The man could spend ten pages describing a door handle and have me laughing, melancholic, tearful, and, most importantly, seeing the door handle. Virginia Woolf – probably my biggest influence. There is a woman who knew darkness and simply wrote on a different level than anyone else I’ve ever read. It’s like she could see what was going on in the spaces between the words, between the lines and wrote such darkness with such beauty. And that, that is genius.
More modern influences – Chuck Palahniuk, James Ellroy, Joseph Heller, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ted Lewis, Derek Raymond.
But I read all the time, and I’m learning constantly. My next literary influence could be just a book away.
How much do you think the class system in England affects its literature and distinguishes it from the literature of other nations?
I think most definitely the class system in England affects its literature. For too many years now, the celebrity biography has become the opium of the masses, as it were. The celebrity culture of the last decade, along with the weekly carrot of winning the lottery, enables the normal man and woman on the street to dream of a life they are unlikely ever to experience. Just another form of escapism to avoid the difficulties in their day to day lives.
And that’s fine. That’s great. If that’s what you want to do. The upper echelons of the middle classes will always have their Booker Prizes and their high-end literature love-ins. And that’s fine as well. But I have a feeling, from those I know, family, friends, clients I talk to in my role as a counsellor in one of the most deprived areas of London, that something is stirring. There is a backlash coming. I don’t mean a revolution in the literal sense, but there are a growing number of people that want now to be recognised. A generation of working class people that want their own literature. They are fed up with being force-fed celebrity gossip and told how wonderful Harry Potter is, and that the true literature of their class is the text message and the social networking sites and the sensationalist press. I believe what people are beginning to want is a literature that reflects their own experiences. They want something to identify with. Something to call their own.
Does the class system in England distinguish its literature from other nations? I think there is always a need for the voice of the common man to be heard. I see much hope in independent publishing houses in the UK, such as Byker Books and Pulp Press, who provide a vehicle for the voice of the common man, writers who are beginning to put into words what they see around them every day, unvarnished, unafraid. In the US, I can only speak for the vibrant online crime-fiction scene, and can testify to the brilliance of many of the writers and their willingness to seek the truth of what it is to suffer in the lower economic reaches of society. So, yes, the class system in England might distinguish its literature from that of other nations, it might have a more direct affect, but truth is universal. And where there are writers seeking to write the truth, the voice of the common man will be heard loud and clear.
Do you see a connection between fatherhood and the position occupied by a narrator?
Being a dad of three, I think I know where you’re going with this one, Richard. If you are talking, quite literally, about the act of creation then, undoubtedly, the narrator is the father to the characters he creates. If you then enlarge the analogy to encompass the responsibility of letting your creations live their lives unfettered, encouraging them to be true to themselves, allowing them to make their own mistakes, learn their own lessons, yet safe in the knowledge you will be there for them always should they need your help, then the position of fatherhood and the narrator become almost interchangeable. Mind you, to think that some of my literary creations could be considered, in some way, in any way, children of mine makes my skin crawl. No hard feelings, chaps. Just does, that’s all.
And on another note, just wanted to say the three littl’uns of mine I referred to earlier in my answer are Mollie (12), Charlie (8), and Summer (3). There, you embarrassed now, Mols 🙂
Do you think that the extent to which we rebel is commensurate to the extent that we reinforce the person we are rebelling against?
To the extent that one defines the other, I think that’s true, Richard. If, however, in Freudian terms, we have the Id rebelling against the Superego, the act of rebellion is too instinctive an act to be able to recognise this sort of structural dynamic in the heat of battle – except through hindsight. And if with hindsight, we can see the one being rebelled against as an aspect of ourselves, the process can’t help but be instructive.
Do you think that love involves psychopathology and that literature is a way of redeeming that against the flaws that often govern individual lives and lead people to sabotage the thing they want the most?
I would hesitate to say love is completely governed by psychopathology, but I do think it is a dominant factor. And literature, yes, literature is capable of redeeming the negative aspects of a psychopathology by showing us our own flaws in the guise of fictional characters. We have the opportunity to relate, to recognise those parts of ourselves that contribute to the self-sabotage we all indulge in from time to time as a way of reinforcing our own sense of inadequacy.
Due to the nature of the beast, I am here talking completely of myself, obviously. The characters I create, the moment I sense them crawling out of the darkness, I know they’re here to teach me something about myself. Otherwise, you know, there would be no point in me creating them, would there?
Thank you Ian for a great and insightful interview which I hope will draw new readers to your work.
Ian’s author website
Get a copy of ‘Abide With Me’ at Amazon US or UK, B&N, or see Goodreads for a complete list of online stores.
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