Gareth Spark writes dark fiction about the moors and rust belts of the North East where grudges are savoured and shotguns are cheap. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle and Out Of The Gutter among other journals, and his novella Marwick’s Reckoning was published this year. It is a hardboiled revenge story packed with mobsters. Gareth met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his writing and genre.
Tell us about your writing and the genres you write.
To talk about my writing, I’d have to begin by talking about why I write, which is a difficult question to answer without resorting to the language of a Facebook post or that of one of the ‘inspirational’ books I deplore. My writing represents an attempt to impose some kind of dramatic order on the frantic tumult and confusion of contemporary life by paring it back to basics: anger, ambition, loyalty, revenge, love. I write about small lives, lives perhaps resembling my own, beset by adversities, both external and internal, whose conflicts are often resolved through acts of violence…. if they’re resolved at all. Beside that there’s this urge for self-expression I’m sure counts as the figurative ‘Big Bang’ of most Artist’s careers; the sense that this passing word demands record, one’s particular world, the places and people and times one loves, the present moment slipping into a past entirely irredeemable, as memory is as much a work of fiction as the best novel. Therefore, the act of writing, of creating a fictional world drawing from the stark particulars of one’s own, becomes kind of a salvation of days lost, of the epiphanies and despairs of a lifetime, of the lachrimae rerum. The attempt at such is perhaps an impossible task, or at least one resembling that of Sisyphus, a repeated effort or attempt with little hope of conclusion but, as Camus said, one must imagine Sisyphus happy, and the writer too, has to be happy in the continued ascent represented by every story, every novel, every poem.
I would say also, that one writes the only story one can, and I’ve seen not a few of my contemporaries drawn down blind alleys trying to, as the American writer Sam Hawken put it the other day, “write somebody else’s book,” be that for reasons of commerce, lack of a clear insight into or sense of fidelity to their own vision, or simple mistaking of their vocation in the first place. Writing has to be a calling, a vocation, the explanation of and purpose of one’s life. It certainly has been for me, going on twenty years now, and if one is to accomplish anything worthwhile, especially these days when the flood of digital publishing has made books so disposable, one has to write with the entirety of one’s being, with every last drop of blood. I’m drawn to writing about places I know and love, and the way these places impact upon the lives lived in them, without my writing becoming some kind of reportage, or natural description. The country becomes a mirror of the characters, and vice versa, and I don’t mean in some iteration of the pathetic fallacy, but in the sense that a tough, wild place makes for a hardy culture and a tough people. I’m drawn to the Icelandic sagas for just that reason, and I would see my work as a continuance of that spirit, that gritty, northern, stoic sensibility. My stories have been called noir, and if we define noir as stories about people becoming undone by a weakness in their souls rather than just bad luck, I suppose I’d have to agree. I tend, in my personal beliefs towards a determinism that’s almost an old English resignation to fate, what happens would always have happened, the world would always have been thus, and it’s in the conduct of people faced with the vast mousetrap of the universe and the essential powerlessness of the average man or woman, and their courage or lack of it when facing that, which interests me. At the same time, that bleak vision is alleviated by moments of beauty and goodness, which I think people respond to in my work. Chiaroscuro is far more interesting than shadow alone, and contrast adds texture and depth to any portrait, including my portrait of a working class crumbing at the edges into an underclass, whose only respite from the crushing weight of a global monoculture that has stripped meaning and agency from their lives, is the feud. Brit Grit interests me as a kind of punk rock, destructive response to a banal culture dominated by the vulgar and corrupted by commerce. In my short stories, I depict the moment of crisis itself and the realization, perhaps, of its effects in the character’s minds at the last possible moment. In my longer fiction, where one can be expansive, I’m interested more in the entirety of a life, and the slow tightening of the noose. I attended a writing group, many years ago, and the talk veered, bizarrely, into a discussion of our favorite biblical passages (it was an eccentric group, to which I didn’t belong for more than a month) and I said the only passage that every meant a thing to me was Mark 14.37 “And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour?” The group leader asked me, “So, you’re moved by human frailty?” To which my only response was, “Yes.” You understand that, and you understand what I’m trying to do with my work.
Tell us about Half Past Nothing.
Half past nothing was my attempt at a fiction of Joycean epiphanies, stories that are more like the flash of countryside through a car window as one drives rather than the map….by which I mean I avoided the heavily plotted, structured fiction one normally associates with the generic or the pulp. I can’t say it was that successful. My subsequent short story collection, Snake Farm, was more of a reflection and a commentary on tropes associated with genres popular in the latter half of the 20th Century; the western, the noir pulp, the zombie story, the revenge thriller and, consequently, the stories obey the edicts of the creative writing class by having beginnings, middles and ends. If I write short fiction at all these days, it tends towards flash fiction. It’s possible to create something gnomic and powerful with 500 words. I hope.
Do you seek inspiration in alienation or the past?
The past certainly provides most of my inspiration, my own personal past as opposed to some kind of mythic history of the culture that, more than likely, only exists in retrospect. I have said before that the attempt to translate a personal experience of the world, by which I mean people, their actions and the effect of Nature upon both, into some kind of lasting Art, into some kind of testament that means something to people, something that may be perhaps vital rather than merely entertaining, has been the North Star by which I steer. The history of alienated individuals can be compelling, but 85% of the time, isn’t. That kind of literature, divorced from a wider social context (aside that of estrangement from that society), is, by definition, alien. To change the world or at least have the temerity to comment upon it, it’s important to be a part of that world. That’s not to say that I’m being massively naive…. this post-industrial, 1%-er technocracy that we grudgingly still refer to as the free world is a machine that could be designed for the purpose of alienating its inhabitants, but the literature dealing with that fact tends toward the Romantic, and Romanticism has had its day. The past is something emotionally tangible, it carries weight, and it’s that kind of weight one needs in the construction of a story, a narrative of some moral utility.
What else is on the cards for you this year?
I do have some new short stories on the horizon, published by some of my favourite fiction websites, as well as a few pieces of poetry, but mainly I’m working on a novel, THE novel, that’s devoured so much of the past four years of my life. It’s a multi-generational examination of this small corner of the word, and the conflict between a personal mythos and the larger narrative of history; it’s about a feud between two men that bleeds across the following 50 years, and the ultimate futility of hate. Mephistopheles promised Faust, as part of his infernal bargain, a book that contained everything….I would love for this to be a similar book.
Thank you Gareth for a great interview.
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