A New Literary Form Is Born: An Interview with Suhayl Saadi
By Sophie Erskine.
3:AM: Suhayl, thanks so much for agreeing to answer my questions. Now, on the website for your new novel Joseph’s Box, you make the following rather pleasing statement about the work: “WARNING! This novel breaks all the rules of conventional novel-writing, and should not be attempted by the faint-hearted!” Could you say a bit more about what rules you’ve broken, and why?
SS: My pleasure. 3AM is a good time and place to talk.
If you read many contemporary literary novels today, you may notice that regardless of the subject matter there’s a ‘sameness’ about them, the way in which thoughts are expressed and ideas, conveyed, the sometimes dogmatic application of what are, at best, useful maxims such as, ‘less is more’, the narrative techniques utilised, even the same, irritating, stylistic devices scattered like pepper all over the pages.
I suspect that this may be partly an effect of years of creative writing dogma aimed at ‘How to get published and make a lot of money’, as well as peer pressure orthodoxy and also of the social class demographics of many prominent writers and nearly all editors as well as – crucially – the deadening, homogenising effect of PR/ marketing corporatism. Words become, ‘product’, so that it is as though you’d bought a ‘hand-cooked’ packet of crisps; there are different makes, various flavours, but in the end, they’re all rather similar and while eating them while sipping white wine makes you feel posher than if you’d bought the bog-standard ones, afterwards you don’t remember very much about them. But your body digests this ‘house style’ and over time, to some extent you, too, come to believe that this is the way, truth and the life. Soon, you begin to expect – demand, even – this homogeneity, these predictable emotional and intellectual triggers and yet still, somehow (to paraphrase Mr Lennon) you imagine that you are expansive, classless, autonomous and liberated.
Talk about burning books and burning bushes, I think that reading an effective novel can be like being immersed in fire and emerging as something a little different. This can be stimulated by various means: leaving narrative streams open-ended; allowing the development of corrosion and porousness; kayaking along a number of narrative rivers, beginning new ones often from unpredictable places as well utilising oxbows; purposely not introducing all the characters at the beginning and allowing marginal characters to play central roles and their stories to assume importance. In some senses, then, this is a return to the ‘primitive’ style of the epic, yet on the other hand, it’s a democratisation of the narrative form, a turn away from the self-obsessed ‘I’. That may sound odd, coming from an author who has penned several novels centred around an individual. But you see, the self is porous, not fully autonomous. It’s rather more than just the ‘loose, baggy monster’ phenomenon; I’ve used similar techniques in shorter fiction as well (eg. my paean to Sephardic culture, ‘The Spanish House’, or my exploration of the holy myths of deepest England, in ‘The Saelig Tales’. There’s even a highly sexually-charged novella, ‘The Black Mirror’, drawn from various pagan ideas.
Perhaps, then, it is a regression to Mediaevalism. Wait, then, while I fetch my alembic!
Furthermore, perhaps the type of exegesis similar to that applied to religious texts ought to be applied to ‘Joseph’s Box. My fictions seldom run simply as linear, ‘A to B’ narrative. Here is a simple example, from the section of the book set in Sicily:
And there was music coming from the cube, she was certain she could hear it, somewhere deep in her head. Not sound, not the noise of instruments, but something that held the quality of music, the transfiguring of form, the leap across history, the intersection of the physical and spiritual that threw up windows, portals, what in another place she might have called insights, intuitive realities, illuminations.
Now, if one were critiquing that passage according to contemporary creative writing ideology, one might say that the author should have ended the sentence after the ‘transfiguring of form’, as the rest is gilding the lily, over-writing, trying to appear clever, swamping the reader with unnecessary qualifying phrases, not allowing the reader to do the work, etc. And, when I read this passage out loud on live radio recently, I did cut the sentence at ‘transfiguring of form’, because I was reading it out of context as part of a one minute-long reading. However, those other words are there in the novel (and also the longer extract which is to be published in November in a North American anthology of writings about Sicily, ‘Sweet Lemons’), for a number of reasons. Firstly, they link up with other, both earlier and subsequent, ideas and occurrences in the plot specifically and the text in general. Secondly, there are times when it is important and effective to cast a spell by the use of chiastic structures. Thirdly, they are consistent with, and form part of, various musical effects which run through the entire novel. Fourthly, a sinking into words and images and an exploration of the various possible fluctuant meanings of those word-images is one of the main themes of ‘Joseph’s Box’. Fifthly, this is an example of where I utilise techniques common in Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetics (and music), in which an idea is repeated at the end of every line but with a slightly different variation each time. There’s probably more, but I’ll leave that to the academics.
So, continuing the theme, the novel in hard copy would be the synoptic or canonical text, while the substantial tales on the website might be seen as apocrypha, schismatic or even heretical texts. And these will lead to other works of mine, some already published elsewhere, others published by me on the web only now as receptacles for these energetic narratives. The parallel is not exact, of course, but is a useful one to draw if one is more fully to appreciate the ‘Joseph’s Box’ experience.
Other means include not inserting obvious little hooks in the last two sentences of each chapter such as (variations on), ‘Ah-ha! But that was what she thought…’, or, ‘But that was nothing compared to what was going to happen (in the next chapter which you can be sure will be appropriately-proportioned to avoid challenges to the presumed contemporary concentration-span)!’; confounding cultural preconceptions and expectations; and at some basic level not adhering to the polite, bourgeois consensus (‘Middle England’ is a psychological, literary and, arguably, a pathological state), which, sadly, increasingly dominates much of contemporary literature. It is also important to avoid the perpetual danger that the writer begins to slip into a kind of easy self-plagiarism, a ‘branding’ of thought and expression, using the same sorts of phrases and modifications of words over and over in every book. Even the best writers fall into this trap. This is one reason why I try to change what I do and how I do it in every piece of work. That way, like the djinn who got away, I won’t stay in a box!
I also deploy the rhythms and ambiences of other languages in the text. Urdu, Arabic and Persian employ multiple narrative and symbolic levels – this is one of the reasons why poetry written in these tongues is so difficult to translate effectively – and I try to employ some of that in my writing in English. I am attempting, then, to shift the gravitational possibilities of the English language, again, in terms of potential thought-processes. To some extent, it’s a neurological thing, a matter of biochemistry. Sometimes this is done overtly, in almost Joycean fashion through the use of word-play, neologisms, etc., as can be seen extensively in ‘Psychoraag’, sometimes with subtlety, as predominantly is the case in ‘Joseph’s Box’ where, except in climactic passages, it remains an undercurrent.
Paradox is like a pergola. Words – sometimes non-English words – are sometimes inserted to underpin, yet simultaneously disrupt and re-direct, the flow.
When I was a child, I used to go wandering – disused railway-lines, old barns, dry-stone walls, strangely Pre-Raphaelite copses – it’s much more fun to wander than to be guided, and you could do it in those days with freedom and without paranoia. In similar fashion, I try to allow the reader room to wander, even to meander, to almost lose themselves and their grip of the narrative. In other words, I try to avoid patronising either myself, the characters, or the reader because in an effective novel, all of these become, one; to utilise a Gothic analogy, when you enter one of my books, you are not taken on a little tour of an old castle with mannequins, smooth paths and shiny red ropes, rather, you wander, late at night, down into a barely charted subterranean city in which there may well be few lights and whence there may be no escape. You are your only guide. But in the end (though perhaps there is no end), it will have been worth it; there won’t be that sense of having been manipulated.
‘Joseph’s Box’ is like the Ganges; it moves slowly; this is another technique that goes against contemporary creative writing dogma. Yet it’s not slow like a pre-cinematic Victorian novel. The reader immerses themselves in a narrative which penetrates very deeply into the consciousnesses of the characters and their worlds, so that a massive harmonic musical charge is built up which propels the increasingly complex and multi-levelled narrative along the line of the melody. The tension between these two forces – the counterpoint, if you like – permits seepage and subversion, and this, as well as the purposefully spontaneous, multilayered yet unmannered feel of the writing all results in the manifestation of increasingly florid hallucinatory phenomena. In turn, these loop back into the narrative, changing its remembered futures. It is a poltergeist of a book.
I don’t buy the ‘cynical voice’; I think we’ve had too much of that over the past few years; it’s become deadening. I’m a passionate person, who is not afraid to express emotion in print. And so, I try to sing with an ‘open’ voice, a naïve voice, which lets in the timbres and thoughts of others until it is as though the world is being re-made from first principles. And so, in this ‘field of the first instance’, we can have urban realism, empathetic emotional personal stories of loss, shape-shifting shamanism and political material and it can all work together rather like the melodies played by various instruments in an orchestra. And ‘Joseph’s Box’ is a symphonic novel.
And why push boundaries? Who knows why people do things? I don’t know. Here area selection of possible answers:
1. Taking seriously the concept of freedom of expression.
2. The realisation of individual potential.
3. Because I become possessed by certain things at certain times.
4. To establish a different way of looking at the world.
5. To strive for some kind of unification of the tangents of my life.
6. To avoid the danger of being completely understood or typecast (to imagine that one has gained a complete understanding of someone else is equivalent to creating a licence to destroy them – and the same maxim applies to books).
7. To subvert and expose stereotypical – and therefore limiting – views.
8. Because writing gives me a high.
9. All of the above.
Please tick the box(es) which you think apply (there is no negative marking). Use a ballpoint pen. Always write in black.
3:AM: The novel, you say, was specifically inspired by a box containing a bundle of aged-looking manuscripts which appeared on your desk. This box, and the packages which you continued to receive afterwards, appeared at first glance to have been sent by a dead person from a house which no longer exists. This is all intensely weird, of course, and you (reasonably) say that the whole episode was probably a prank. But who do you think would have bothered with this prank, and why?
SS: There are multiple pranksters and practical jokers in the world, people who invent and disseminate disinformation, viruses, etc. It is as though these people have been hibernating, gestating, waiting for their time. The web renders power, which can be positive or negative. In relation to generative processes of relevance in the context of ‘Joseph’s Box’, perhaps this matter of boxes is simply a concretisation of those processes. Perhaps an ‘agenda’ will become clearer with time, perhaps not.
Have you ever spotted the doppelganger of someone you know? Most of us have had that somewhat Borgesian experience. But perhaps we are only conjuring the resemblance, perhaps at some level it is an hallucination, a mandrake-root on a busy high street. Remember the Orson Welles film, ‘F is for Fake’? Well, that movie was slated on its release in 1975 (pointedly, the same years as ‘Jaws’) and also, as I recall, during the 1980s. But I always thought it was a great film – and I use the word, ‘great’ here with utmost deliberation.
One summer’s afternoon, some years ago, when I was drinking coffee with a very quiet acquaintance, I saw a doppelganger of my brother. A couple of years later, the person whom I was with at the time became overtly psychotic. Now I wonder whether, at that moment, some of their lunacy – at that time incipient, hidden – had catalysed my own perception of the world. A number of other things have happened in my life which have led me to doubt the Newtonian view of reality; after all, scientists posed these questions a hundred years ago. So I no longer attempt to rationalise inexplicable phenomena; there are explanations, Horatio, but they are likely to be beyond our ken. The self is porous and we cannot yet define consciousness. How, then, can our perception of reality be anything other than malleable, provisional, fortuitous? Woolf and Joyce went there in a different way eighty years ago. It is the stuff of nightmares. Take the lid off the box, and…
3:AM: David Robinson in The Scotsman called your work Pyschoraag “the first-ever Asian Scottish novel”. You’ve done a pretty good job, it seems, of expressing a unique and complex Asian-Scottish identity and style – as Angus Calder in The Sunday Herald noted when he said that Psychoraag was ‘not just’ Midnight’s Children-meets-Trainspotting but ‘more thoughtful’ than that. Why has Asian-Scottish literature only appeared now, and what effect might its presence on the literary scene have?
SS: The explanation is likely to reside partly in the demographics and geographies of migration, in both South Asia and Scotland. I used to run a writers’ group in an area of Glasgow with a high concentration of South Asians and some fascinating short stories were published by some of the writers during that period (late 1990s/ early 2000s). They had begun to express themselves well and I would have liked to have helped them to experiment, to get beyond the strictly mimetic, but eventually I ran out of time and money.
The couple of people who have written books of various sorts – none of which would be described as literary fiction, more well-written, issue-based autobiography – seem either, like me, to have lived somewhat outside of the loop or else to have come from elsewhere, resided in Glasgow for a time and then left for London, or wherever. I sense, though, that I am something of an anomaly. My background and upbringing were very different from that of most other South Asian Glaswegians.
Together with arguably the premier world exponent of the sarod, Wajahat Khan and one of the most respected modern composers in Britain, Nigel Osborne, in ‘The Queens of Govan’ (an adaptation of a short story of mine), I wrote the (to my knowledge) first-ever chiromantic of a Muslim Glaswegian working-class woman singing and praying on a Western opera stage; at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, as well as at prestigious venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Occasionally, I have had the experience of secondary school kids of South Asian origin contacting me, saying that they were studying ‘Psychoraag’, or else one of the short stories, for their dissertations, and that’s very gratifying, to think that anyone might derive something from my stuff, to imagine for a moment that it’s not all been a damaging and pointless waste of time.
‘Psychoraag’ should be a cult hit. It ought to be in every music shop in the country. That’s my view. ‘Joseph’s Box’ is a very different novel, bigger, deeper, structurally and in terms of characterisation, more complex, but word-for-word, is easier to read; it’s a serious work of art but the style is more accessible. Of course, I’d love to have my work disseminated widely, if only because one has to buy time to write. But hey – moving mountains is what I do in my spare time!
Also, perhaps because, unlike, say, the writers of working-class origin who emerged in Scotland during the late 1970s (Kelman et al), my work is neither part of a literary movement nor the direct result of macroscopic socio-economic processes, as an artist I am somewhat isolated. That’s the price of originality. My work tends to confound expectations and as you’ll have gathered by now, I don’t believe in barriers.
I have a sort of vicarious spiritual affinity for the psychedelic pioneers of the 1960s, but obviously a sizeable time-slip and various cultural issues separate me from them, though I am in touch, now, with some immensely talented artists from that time and place.
And in that spirit, after all the serious stuff, in the final analysis, in the manner of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Joseph’s Box’ is fun. I think that people will have a good time reading it, which is what I had, writing it! I think that comes through.
Yes, and who knows how the river flows? Maybe, one day, I’ll become the Nick Drake of the writing world. Alive, though, please – and kicking!
3:AM: We all (!) know the story of Pandora’s box – the large jar which unleashed many evils (as well as some hope) into the world. Your novel, of course, is about a mysterious box. How much similarity should we be drawing here?
SS: There are resonances, in ‘Joseph’s Box’, of Pandora and her heavy burden of hope; I think she’s actually mentioned at some point in the text. Also, one of the ‘tangential’ narratives on the ‘Joseph’s Box’ website (the website contains a wealth of such stories) tells the tale of a Greek soldier named Menander as he roams around the mountains of what is now known as ‘The Roof of the World’. ‘Joseph’s Box’ draws a lot on the Indo-Greek civilisation of 2,000 years ago, as well as on Magna Graecia in its Sicilian form. And of course, Zuleikha is a woman. Both Pandora and the Quranic Zuleikha (the Biblical Potiphar’s wife) are representations of human flaws (we’re talking patriarchal civilisations here) who yet contain a glimmer of hope within their souls and it is this glimmer which may come at last to define them. In the Quranic Zuleikha’s case, she becomes a hermit, basically a dervish, a seeker after spiritual beauty. The C15th Persian poet, Jami, codified this story of ‘Yusuf and Zuleikha’ into a romance cycle.
And, in ‘Joseph’s Box’, when Zuleikha MacBeth, too, decides to open this strange box; it seems as though all the miseries in her life have already been released, but then some more come flying out: love, death and music! But the ‘box’ was also premised on the idea of the house of seven doors through which Zuleikha leads Joseph (Yusuf) in order to seduce him! She fails, and eventually becomes an ascetic. It’s a Sufi metaphor for the attainment of enlightenment; there’s no shortcut, it’s not a consumer item. An incarnation of Lilith also appears in ‘Joseph’s Box’, by the way, in the form of the old Jewish hippy in the forest, Leila, whose (Arabic) name means, ‘of the night’.
The horrifying ubiquity of loss that defines us, combined with the ‘method-written’ depiction of personal emotion, when engaged with long mythology and other, sometimes bardic, sometimes scurrilous, forms of orality and a frankly modern and open and effective eroticism (I’m pleased to say that I would never win the Bad Sex In Fiction Award!) can render profundity, élan and narrative tension to a piece of fiction. To stay with things Greek, Eros-Thanatos. Or, to put it another way, it’s a mad hatter’s tea-party with Plato, Pluto, Persephone and Pan.
3:AM: In my humble opinion, there’s a lyrical quality to your prose which makes it reminiscent of music. At one point in Joseph’s Box, you write: “Unlike people, music never died, but remained out there, caught in air and stone and river. Unseen, it animated a mathematical rubric of reality that in essence stood quite outside of time. It was the coat of many colours, the fabric of the spirit.” Is this sentiment of your character Zuleikha something that you yourself believe? If so, how has it influenced your writing style?
SS: Much of my writing is an attempt at transfiguration and there are antinomian and pantheistic tendencies in many of my works. The concepts of music therein draw on both Pythagorean/ Classical Arabic ideas, eg. those of Al Farabi, and also on the experiential metaphysics of shamans and other spiritual figures – Sufis, yogins, tzaddiks, Gnostics etc. – all traditions manifest such practitioners. I’m not sure whether I would describe it as a ‘belief’ of mine, though I’d like to think that it holds some truth, even on the level of theoretical physics. It is a concept, the exploration of which I find fruitful. I suspect that art, as well as religion, arises from this source. It must be remembered that I also draw on the ideas and music of Modernist composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Iannis Xenakis. I think that there is both beauty and truth in their work. And as well as being a healthy political trait, dissonance is good for the soul.
Music has driven, and to some extent defined, my work over the years. ‘Psychoraag’ drew on music from the earliest recordings in India (1902), through the ‘Golden Age’ of South Asian film music and 1960s psychedelia to contemporary Celtic Rock and London/ Karachi ‘fusion’ bands like the Asian Dub Foundation and Junoon. Music drove the narrative and characterisation in that book.
In everything I write, I seek out something which I term, ‘the music’. This is an energy centre which I cannot define and which lies beyond the realm of obvious poetic technique.
In ‘Joseph’s Box’, the energetic source is the music of the lute – and its predecessors and relations, such as the oud (or ‘ud), whence the word and instrument derived (al oud means, simply, ‘the wood’ in Arabic). The ‘ud moved through many physical forms and has its own cosmogony and in Europe the lute – again, through mutating structures – became the premier instrument of the Renaissance. It produces (to quote the NYC-based lutenist and visual artist, Roman Turovsky) “a music of melancholy, rather than madness”, it is the repository and embodiment of a mannered restraint and since the onset of the Enlightenment, it has become less ubiquitous, and so, in relation to the mechanics of building character in a novel, the lute expresses a greater degree of singularity, than, say, the guitar. Hence, Alex, the lute-playing clerk. When was the last time a guy chatted-up a girl using a lute? Around 1715, I reckon. So, in ‘Joseph’s Box’, the lute is both metaphor for, and exemplar of, the emotional, romantic and spiritual journey of the characters, particularly that of the protagonist, Zuleikha MacBeth. I’m also very grateful to Rob MacKillop, one of the world’s leading lutenists, for his help in researching the instrument.
Music is also a potent metaphor for the manner in which narratives move through, and sometimes come to define, cultures. Folk tales and folk songs are everywhere and, as has been well understood by such writers such as Italo Calvino and Marina Warner, form the basis of our conception of the universe. It’s also a force of spiritual ascension (as King David, Pythagoras, George Harrison, John Coltrane, Ziryab and George Frideric Handel all understood). This is the case, whether or not we remain aware of it. And it is the modern suppression of this knowledge by the rise of the Self which can render potential psychological power to a fictional narrative.
3:AM: To round up, I’ll be genuinely sycophantic. I think you are one of the most exciting writers out there at the moment, not least because you manage to be high-brow and low-brow at the same time: your work is informed by a vast range of spirituality, culture and history, and at the same time you write about “used syringes, condoms, fag-ends, beer cans, dead cats, snakeskins and the stink of piss, shit and semen”. What sort of writers have inspired this double talent? Or is it just your own unique skill?
SS: That is very kind of you. I’m very honoured that you’ve interviewed me. It’s been great fun! At the risk of sounding pompous and egotistical, actually I agree with your assessment of my work. Clearly, we are not alone in this respect; it would appear that Boyd Tonkin of The Independent shares our view, since in a recent piece in that newspaper, he inferred that ‘Joseph’s Box’ could’ve been listed in the baker’s dozen for the Booker Prize if the judges had been less “orthodox”.
Whatever value one places on literary glitter, that is a strong – and I think, brave and honest – statement for a literary editor of a quality national daily to make. I like his description of ‘Joseph’s Box’ as having emerged from a ‘non-corporate imprint’, which of course is the luminous, courageous and deeply literate Two Ravens Press.
Paradox, counterpoint, juxtaposition – these can be powerful literary and semiotic techniques. I’ve explored a wide variety of styles and approaches. Inspiration comes from books, music, films and of course, living memories and life experiences, my own and those of people I’ve known or met; the casual glimpse from the stranger or the life and death of the close relative; to breathe, for a moment, a Chekhovian air, it’s all song and ice.
In many ways, ‘Joseph’s Box’ is a conceit of opposites: a very ‘adult’, mid-life story of loss and disillusion, yet simultaneously a child-like adventure; a political and consequential novel of war and post-industrial fall-out, yet a symphony composed for as effete an instrument as the lute; built into the vehicle of the book is an axle of realist mimesis, yet lay a hand upon its engine and we experience the destabilising mutability of the shaman; it’s delectably local yet also almost overwhelmingly trans-cultural; the Sufi wisdom tale and English folk song flow through the rusty iron cranes of the Glasgow shipyards; the protagonist, Zuleikha is a scientist, a physician, yet she seems to hark back an older form of medicine, to a Greek, or even pagan, source. And so on.
It’s difficult to pinpoint specific works, and it changes. Perhaps, as an approximation of truth, one might posit Juan Rulfo, Gustav Meyrink, James Kelman, George Bataille, Anaïs Nin, George Eliot, William Burroughs, Italo Calvino, English folk songs, Jorge Luis Borges, the magical drums of shamanism, Emile Zola, Marcel Proust, Yusuf (Cat Stevens), Hafiz Shirazi, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mafouz, Lewis Carroll, The Beatles, Orson Welles, Tim Buckley, Roy Harper, Ziryab, Gorki, The Song of Solomon, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Ayler, John Cowper Powys, Mikhail Bulgakov, The Psalms of David, Yukio Mishima…
I was very privileged to have been immersed, as a child, in Urdu and Persian poetry, of which my mother was a great lover, as well as in Urdu popular song; I lacked understanding, but I grasped both the cadence and the compulsion to understand. This occurred as simultaneously the sounds of psychedelic and other musics were echoing through various parts of the house. I was brought up in central Scotland and the north of England and had access to people and their living memories stretching back to Late Victorian times. Old ladies who had dressed for 50 years all in black since their husbands had been killed in the Great War. I’ve dealt with dying ex-shipyard workers and some of my ancestors were in the armed forces, while others were executed for their anti-imperialist activities. So there are a number of loops and paradoxes which seem to have become confluent in ‘Joseph’s Box’. I once wrote a monologue for BBC Radio Scotland which touched on this subject about an old family valve radio, which I still have. It’s right behind me as I write this now.
Remember, too that on one level, I am a scientist and so I try to view things from first principles. It’s a democratising tendency, rather like that of the Encyclopaedists in C18th France.
It is said that history is everything. A lucid understanding of history is a conduit to knowledge and allows you to side-step contemporary orthodoxies. I’ve been exposed to ‘industrial history and the Glasgow urban demotic’ (sounds like the title of a worthy PhD thesis!), both in real life and through literature, live readings, workshops, etc. So I can draw on that but I find that if this very sensate, muscular style of writing is combined with deep history, local legends, myths, folk-tales and the consciously surreal or fantastical (fantastical, that is, in the Alberto Manguel, rather than the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, sense), it can make for a potent alchemical mixture. The result? Transfiguration. A new literary form is born. You get the best of both worlds: the narrative is not held down like a mediocre punk-rock song in some circular depressing parochial workerist ethic, yet every time one is in danger of leaping into metaphysical abstraction or psychedelic playfulness, there’s always the march of history and the stink of bodily excretions and other such olfactory wonders to bring us all back down to earth and hold us there. As one of the most perceptive literary theorists I’ve read, Professor Zulfikar Ghose, of the University of Texas at Austin, points out, in effective literature, ideas emerge from matter, not the other way around. So I squeeze the dirt for all it’s worth and watch the sparks and diamonds fly. Add to this, the lubrication which music can provide, and you’ve got a workable literary form. Even when we reach the stars, we’ll still be gazing down into the gutter.
Now, I didn’t think up this modus operandum and then apply it; it wouldn’t have worked that way. It was something which developed over time, over constant re-drafting, pushing the envelope of my own literary skills, kicking back against received wisdoms such as, ‘write about what you know (my son)’. My motto is: write about anything you bloody well like; just make sure you do it effectively. We’ve all had all the emotions, the rest is research and that leap which some can do and others cannot – it’s not really something you can learn, otherwise all academics of literature would be wonderful fiction writers. I know people who’ve passed every creative writing course under the sun and who are more analytically intelligent and far better-read than I, but who just can’t write either fiction or drama. It’s like any art-form. In order for talent to be developed, crafted, it’s got to be there in the first place. And then, as with the tariqah (Sufi path), there is no easy way. You’ve got to do it, to know. There’s blood in the stars.
But there’s also love.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sophie Erskine is part-time research assistant to the novelist Karen Essex. She is the media manager for the poetry group Perdika Press and is in the first stages of writing a film with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks and the theatre director Mick Gordon.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 4th, 2009.