Tom Gillespie writes long and short fiction. A number of his stories are published by www.eastoftheweb.com. He is also a regular contributor to fridayflash.org. Tom’s writing has been described as terse, minimalist, hyper-realistic and ambiguous, where layers of meaning are conveyed using a concise and economical style. He is currently working on a second novel and a collection of short stories. His critically acclaimed, debut novel Painting by Numbers, a dark, psychological drama that explores the surreal complexities of the human mind, has been selected as FINALIST for The People’s Book Prize. Published by Crooked Cat Books and available from all good bookstores.
Tom met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about deception and personality.
Tell us about Painting By Numbers.
On one level, Painting by Numbers is a dark, surreal psycho-drama about an unhinged alcoholic lecturer who develops an unhealthy obsession with an allegorical painting, and as his obsession deepens, his life spirals into chaos; his wife goes missing and events take a terrifying turn for the worse. However, Painting by Numbers is much more than the sum of its parts (if you pardon the pun), and for me the book is about the relationship of opposites; genuine and fake, truth and deception, stillness and movement, fate and chance, love and hate, and the interior and exterior worlds that my central character, Jacob inhabits. Painting by Numbers is a philosophical road movie, an odyssey of self-enlightenment. But ultimately, it is a search for atonement and redemption.
Having said all that, I would also hope that the novel is about whatever the reader wants it to be about.
To what extent is your use of a minimalist style effective in creating a level of symbolic meaning in the novel?
I’m a huge fan of the great American literary tradition that stretches back to Mark Twain, and travels through Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, the hard boiled crime writers such as Dashiel Hammett, James M Cain and the beats, all the way up to Raymond Carver and beyond. I love the terse, stripped down style of American prose, but with an exact use of language that is loaded with layers of meaning and possibility. I think one of the reasons why I’m drawn to American writing is because there are stylistic parallels with the Scottish literary tradition, from Walter Scott’s ground breaking Waverley novels, to the works of Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Janice Galloway. There is an almost presbyterian attitude to concise prose in Scottish writing ,yet with ambiguity and interpretation left intact.
My short stories are often directly inspired or influenced by this stylistic approach to writing. But when I began working on Painting by Numbers I felt a needed to do something slightly different. As the narrative involves an exploration of hidden meanings in an allegorical painting, but also it’s about a man’s labyrinthian pursuit of the truth, I decided to juxtapose taut, direct prose with a slightly more elaborate and embellished use of language. In this way I hoped to contrast the visceral realities of Jacob’s predicament with the surreal, near-hallucinogenic internal workings of his damaged mind.
The book was also about allegorical Baroque painting, so I felt that I needed to employ a style that would capture and compliment the dark complexity of the art work that dominates Jacob’s life and psyche. Although ironically, I still think there is greater ambiguity and hidden meanings buried within the simple prose.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
Is it really a revolution..? The word revolution makes me think of ramparts, barricades, toppling statues and the overwhelming roar for liberty and freedom. By definition, a revolution is a sudden or radical change in the cultural paradigm. I suppose that the rise of e-books has been relatively swift, but can you really describe it as radical or revolutionary. Certainly, it involves a technological innovation, and I suppose to some extent the established publishing industry has been seriously shaken, but can you honestly say that the landscape of words and language and ideas and the imagination has gone through some cataclysmic shift in order to fit some kind of new order? I’m not sure. A writer friend of mine said that when he is structuring his novels, he factors in the fact that Amazon upload the first 50 pages for readers to sample, so he includes a strong opener. But what’s revolutionary about that? I’d call it the oldest narrative trick in the book.
Perhaps the price and convenience of e-books encourages us to diversify our reading habits, and this can only be a good thing, right? However, if I think about the impact of e-books on the changes in my own reading and book buying behaviour, then I have some serious problems with the format. I have owned a kindle for about 18 months now, and I have uploaded around 50 books (a sprinkling of genres from a mix of indies, small and mainstream publishers) Of those 50 books, I have so far managed to read about 10, and the only time I get through another is when I’m on holiday. Outside of vacation time, I rarely pick up my kindle. I’m reading a book.. a real book.. at work at the moment and I prefer the paperback because I sit at a computer all day and I don’t want to stare at yet another screen. I worry that all these brilliant books stored away invisibly in the cyberspace of my book machine will never see the light of day. There’s no book case in the hall, or paperback lying on a coffee table, there are no covers on show to demand my attention, to shout at me to pick them up every time I walk past. I just don’t have as much emotional investment in a kindle purchase compared to my joyous aesthetic love -affair with a real book.. and I still don’t know how e-books are going to get around this problem, other than through the attrition of time and the insidious re-programming of our brains until we forget why old stuff can sometimes be better (LPs and CDs, or the Scotland Football team 1974 versus 2013, to name but two).
You could also argue that the e-book phenomenon has made it easier for writers to get their work out there. We are no longer at the mercy and whim of mainstream publishing. Self-publishing has grown exponentially over the last few years, and smaller independent publishers are springing up all over the place. Social media too provides a platform for the promotion of e-books online. A happy marriage you could say. But if you steamroller over the publishing process entirely, there is a serious risk that the balance shifts from quality to quantity. Despite the mythology, I believe that writing a book is a team effort, and if you want a book to stand out it has to be put through the mill and pass through plenty critical eyes and pointy fingers. Of course, writers who wish to self publish can do tbs, but there need to be rigorous objectivity in the process somewhere along the line.
So I would describe the rise of e-books as a phenomenon rather than a revolution. But I think we are in a transitional phase, and there are probably many more changes still to come. In 50 years time people will probably laugh themselves silly at the ridiculous contraptions we used to read books.. but sadly, they may also find it utterly hilarious that we bothered to read at all.
Is there a particular event that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
When I was about six I discovered a box of first edition Graham Greene novels buried at the bottom of my grand father’s wardrobe.. I think at that moment I realised that books and words could be special, treasured and magical..
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
I think Mr Greene is up to his usual mischievous wordplay here, though, in some ways I agree with him. We probably are a bunch of cold-hearted, narcissistic bastards who neglect our partners, kids, families and friends to pursue our own selfish flights of fancy. We spend our days remorselessly picking through the broken bones of human frailty, failure and tragedy for the sake of a decent yarn. We could also be accused of possessing a fear of life’s uncertainties, of somehow trying to control and contain the chaos of existence by putting our own faults and failings through the mincer of fiction, to somehow atone or explain away our sins, like some existential confessional.
But Greene also said that “in our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love.” And that, for me is at the heart of the matter (if you pardon the joke). Greene understood that if humanity is completely removed from a story, then the story will fall flat on its arse and fail. And the brilliance of his writing comes from his courage to exploit his own ice-cold creative ruthlessness to stare into the dark chasm of the human condition, and make us all realise that somewhere tangled up in the wreckage of failure, the true heart and soul of humanity resides.
What makes you angry?
When I start getting angry about anything, I always stop myself and I think… ok you’re angry.. now what? Then I stop feeling angry and start writing.
What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
You know those girls that really fancied you, but you were way too cool and beatnik to go out with them… well I’ve got news for you pal..
How much of the mystery in Painting by Numbers is the mystery of identity?
When we devised the cover concept for PBN, I suggested to the publisher that I thought some kind of distorted face might work. He asked me why and I said because the book is about the fluidity of identity and why people wear a multitude of masks to deceive others and themselves, and to hide who they really are. And ..after a long silence..he said … er Okay.. Then we started to construct a multi-layered image of a disfigured face using a close up shot of a Russian model’s face, and then we overlaid it with a second photograph of some cracked, parched soil and then finally, a third image of faint mathematical scribbles was blended into the shot. The cracks and blemishes were supposed to resemble the wear and ageing found in old paintings, but for me, the disfigurement is much more symbolic of the slow disintegration of my central character’s life as his true identity is revealed. The question of who someone really is is fascinating and complex, and Painting by Numbers explores the many faces and personae that people adopt to get through what it is they have to get through in their lives, and sometimes a catastrophic set of circumstances can lead them to discover that the may not be the person they thought they were.
What else is on the cards for you this year?
The next big thing on the horizon is The People’s Book Prize award ceremony in London on 29th May. Painting by Numbers is a finalist (one of twelve) and I have been invited to the bash. The winner will be announced on the night so it will be rather nerve – racking. I’m also making steady progress on a second novel and I’m trying to get a charity project off the ground involving a photographer friend of mine and some short story writers.
Do you think that most people are hiding something about themselves or hiding from the fact that they do not know who they really are?
I think it was Iris Murdoch who said ..we are such inward secret creatures… And that’s what fascinates me about human beings and motivates me to write. I’m intrigued by the secret lives of others, the private, hidden worlds that people inhabit behind the closed doors of their lives. I mentioned opposites before, and for me writing is all about exploring the often dysfunctional relationship between the public and private, the conscious and subconscious, and how that on-off conflict manifests itself in character’s thoughts, actions and behaviours. Painting by Numbers is all about that. We are all compulsive liars whether we realise it or not.
Thank you Tom for a perceptive and informative interview..