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Bending Ourselves in Leisurely Ways: An Interview With Joe Stretch

Interview by Andrew Gallix.

3:AM: I believe you studied politics at Manchester University: why not the more obvious choices of literature or creative writing? When did you become serious about writing?

JS: By the time I left home, I hated literature. I (stupidly) thought it frivolous and only wanted to read politics and philosophy. I don’t study creative writing. I’m a Fellow of it in Manchester. I became serious about writing at about ten.

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3:AM: You have described Friction, your debut novel, as a warning addressed to a society that is at risk from “too much leisure, too much fun, too much playful rubbish” so there is a political element to it. The protagonists bob “hopelessly on the surface of life” — a life reduced to lifestyle (“In the beginning it was casual,” “Back then, people enjoyed lifestyle. Enjoyed lattes, bruschetta, holidays and cash,” “…leisure time is the only real time,” “It’s like clothes are the only real thing…and fashion the only real time,” “…life is simply the pursuit of pleasure…we bend ourselves in leisurely ways”). The plot is set in the near future, but I get the feeling that you think we have already reached this stage…

JS: Absolutely. But, on the other hand, novels are ruthless in selecting the aspects of society that they wish to examine. I am not currently in the business of evoking “all life”. I’m in the business of picking up the bullshit in Tesco bags and leaving love alone. But, yes, the age of angst and leisure is certainly upon us. It hurts and soothes in equal measure. Sex has escaped from our underwear. I am, for example, offended if a passing person of whatever age of gender, fails to titillate me.

3:AM: The book is indeed awash with sex. There’s Johnny (whose very name is prophylactic-sounding) for whom porn “entirely makes up for the absence of friends”. There’s Colin’s penchant for pregnant women. There’s Justin and Rebecca’s quest “to find brand new ways of having sex,” which is meant to save humanity, but ends in a spate of recreational abortions. There’s the sex machine (that Carly finds “So much greater than cock and balls”) with which women (in the main) electrocute themselves (off the mains) “in the name of repetitive fun, white love, a constant enjoyment, utopia”. Not even salads are safe (“…Justin is watching his mother foreplaying with her tuna Niçoise. The salad’s loving it, its leaves writhe in their dressing and, of course, all olives adore a little middle-aged sex”)! No wonder that Michel Houellebecq‘s name keeps cropping up in relation with Friction. You seem to have anticipated this as there’s a reference to “a French writer…Michel Something or other”! Do you like Michel Something or other’s work? Do you agree with his critique of the liberal 60s and of today’s sexual free market?

JS: I do like Houellebecq. I like writers who are preoccupied with ideas. It’s something English writers sometimes shy away from. And yes, I firmly believe that certain discourses of liberation have, as well as “setting people free”, been damaged by a culture of forgetting to the extent that we buy, we survive, we fuck each other’s brains out with no sense of the prior debate, the struggle, the reasons, the cost. We have forgotten, for example, that leisure was developed to solve the labour problem. We feel that the crown of leisure was placed neatly on our heads by God himself. Idiots.

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3:AM: The word “friction” appears in a masturbation scene. There is also an extract where the narrator juxtaposes the pen and penis (“My pen is snapped. I need a replacement. …I am not a prick. I always carry a spare pen”). Is the title making a parallel between masturbation and writing? Is it also a reference to the Television song?

JS: It’s not, sadly, a reference to a Television song. Nor do I think there’s a huge link between masturbation and writing. On a similar subject, the other day at a gig a girl told me she masturbated regularly while reading Friction, prompted by the text. This was not my intention. Does make one think though. Disgusting, really. We are a disgusting bunch, us.

3:AM: Tell us about the dehumanising way in which bodies are treated in Friction. In one scene, Justin actually takes a minor celebrity apart as if she were a machine. On one occasion, Steve’s heart leaks down into his stomach and ends up on the floor. Similarly, a segment of Justin’s brain drops out of his left ear and into his drink…

JS: Well, this seemed perfectly natural really. I had a strong sense of the body as accessory to our great and winning personalities. Sentences flew around my head: Look at my trendy new dick. Look at those cringe-worthy tits. If people understand their bodies in terms of ‘the look’, then they cease to be humans. When I think of myself, I see my stomach turning…

3:AM: The mixture of state-of-the-nation social commentary and magic realism (the talking sex machine!) is very original. Where did you hit upon that idea?

JS: Just naturally. It seemed right that the sex machine’s personality should outshine the humans. I have always loved magic realism and the absurdist theatre of Ionesco and others. And yet my concerns are political. It’s no surprise that Friction turned out with a blend of those elements.

3:AM: Even though your book is obviously a satire of what you call the “pornography of everyday life,” it also relies on its entertainment value, doesn’t it? In fact, the narrator writes that the plot is driven by horror: do you agree that the devil has all the best lines, even in Friction? Are you not yourself (with your poster boy looks) in danger of becoming part of the trashy lifestyle culture?

JS: Yes. Whenever you try to sell something, you put yourself in a difficult situation. We do not stare at the market. The market stares at us. But I think rather than wasting time worrying about becoming a brand or whatever, just get on with the job, follow your obsessions and hope that the work is understood. You’re right though. I am really, really good looking. Sometimes I squat naked over mirrors. And just stare.

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3:AM: If you had to choose between the “Future Love” regime and the mindless hedonism it overthrows where would your preference lie?

JS: Well, to choose is not the point. Neither is great. But I’d go with mindless hedonism, reluctantly.

3:AM: When did you decide to close the novel with the terse “But instead” two-word sentence?

JS: “But instead” was originally the first two words of the final paragraph. Then one day I deleted the paragraph with the intention of re-writing it. Then I wrote “But instead” and realised I was finished.

3:AM: There’s a blurb by Nicholas Royle on the book comparing you to Burgess and Manchester plays an important part in Friction. Do you feel part of a Mancunian literary scene? Have you been influenced by the city’s rich musical part? Some sentences — “Just marry me, Susan, untie your hair and strip off” for instance — are reminiscent of Morrissey: are you a fan?

JS: I do love Morrissey. But does anyone ever really feel part of a scene? I am a taker of craps. A singer of songs. A writer of books. An eater of food. It’s true I live in Manchester. But to me, the most important thing about Manchester is my flat. If there is a scene, they should text me when they next go out, perhaps.

3:AM: You’re taking part in the creative writing programme headed by Martin Amis at Manchester University. Do you often come into contact with Amis Himself? Does he rank among your influences?

JS: No. Amis does not influence me. And as I say, I’m not studying creative writing. I am a fellow, a writer in residence. I like WG Sebald. Saul Bellow. John Banville. Philip Roth. JG Ballard. J-P Sartre.
I had dinner with Martin once and I believe we’re due to do it again. He told me how to solve the problem of Iran. Thanks for that.

3:AM: Apparently, you’ve already completed your second novel and are currently editing your third! Can you give us an idea of what we should expect?

JS: My second novel is out next March and is called “Wildlife”. It’s an exploration of the pathology of the internet and the pathology of personality. It’s a comedy. I’m pleased with it. I have scrapped two finished novels that I don’t want to publish. I am working on two novels at the moment that I’m really enjouying: “Numb Skull” and “The Unknown”. We’ll see what happens.

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[© Magali Hiega]

3:AM: Some, like Boyd Tonkin in The Indie, describe you as a “musician-turned-writer“. I believe you’re not comfortable with that. How do the music and fiction interact?

JS: I’m fine with it. I’m relaxed normally. I do not share the worries of others. I am a taker of craps. Beyond that, nothing.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Gallix is 3:AM Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief. He writes fiction as well as non-fiction, teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris and lives his life like a string of beads tossed from a frilly New Orleans balcony (mainly in his dreams). He is not currently working on his debut novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 20th, 2008.