Simon Spanton in conversation with Gareth E. Rees.
Recorded and edited by Kit Caless.
Simon Spanton is the Associate Publisher at Gollancz (the SF, Fantasy and Horror imprint of Orion Books). He lives in Hackney, London and has worked in publishing since 1990. He has been the editor for, amongst others, Ben Aaronovitch, Stephen Baxter, M. John Harrison, Graham Joyce, Scott Lynch, Richard Morgan, Christopher Priest and Brandon Sanderson. Slightly more oddly he was also David Seaman’s editor.
Gareth Rees is author of Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London (Influx Press 2013) a ‘psychedelic trip into London’s secret wilderness’.
He blogs at marshmanchronicles.com.
Gareth Rees: My first idea of writing about the [East London] marshes was to go there, and superimpose myself, turn it into a mystical place. A mythical land. The original idea was to map it, give it all my own names and turn it into a fantasy place. That was my first idea, quite arrogant.
I guess it’s what you would call a gentrification approach to psychogeography. It was very typical of someone who had been at work all day and was looking for something to do and I felt like I’d discovered it. Rather than reading what the story was, I immediately tried to impose on it. Even the way I was on Twitter compared to now… I was less… magnanimous. A couple of times people would tweet me to say, ‘Look it’s not your marshes you know’.
There were a few scuffles, I’ve not gotten into a scuffle since, it must have been my tone at the beginning that was probably wrong, even the act of calling myself the ‘Hackney Marshman’ on Twitter was enough to rankle some people.
Simon Spanton: Yes, but every city is going to be imaginary, because your experience of London is going to be different to everyone else’s. And everyone else’s will be different to yours. So anything you write about London will have someone saying, ‘oooh it’s not like that’, or, ‘that’s not my London’.
GR: Twitter was really the only way to gauge this. I was walking around on my own, only talking to my wife about it and with two very young children. I was living in a completely solitary world. I didn’t talk to anyone on the marshes either. The only contact I had was through Twitter, with other people. Then I began to realise, after the stories unfolded, that it was a different place to different people. When I discovered the other people using the marshes for escape, or inspiration or secrets, I thought, ‘oh. It’s not just me’. Then I read Laura Oldfield Ford and I heard about the old rave days and the history of it all. Suddenly I got the sense of the vast numbers of lives that have passed through here and that humbled me.
SS: I only ended up going [to the marshes] because my wife knew about them and we went there once before. We just went to that first little area around the back of the ice rink and thought, well this is kind of okay, but I didn’t realise it went beyond that and over the other side and past the river, so I came to it without knowing any of its history. I went to the filter beds, because you’d mentioned them in your blog. I had no sense of what that massive stone circle in the middle was. And then the first time I came across a pile of drunks in the last hours of a rave on a Sunday morning was a revelation.
I didn’t have a sense of the place being what it was at all. And I still don’t. The more you find out the more there is to find out. One of my favourite analogies for knowledge is that knowledge is an island in a sea of ignorance. And the smaller the island the less ignorance you come up against. But as the island gets bigger, the shoreline of ignorance gets bigger as well. So the more you know the more there is to know. It’s the same as taking a small location like the marshes and diving into it, deeper and deeper to discover there’s still more to know.
GR: One of the things you’ve experienced is the dog. You’re like me; the dog has given you a kind of psychogeographical limit. The early psychogeographers gave themselves limits, or modes of walking about that would disentangle them from their human modes of navigating the city. A dog is brilliant for this. It wants a walk, so you take it out and you go to places where it can run free, so you’re not really guided by your own priorities. You’re walking for the dog, so you’re going in much wider circles. You’re not walking, having an amble, you’re marching around. Then you get this sense that the dog is leading you towards the drinkers and the stuff like that, through the weird smells they pick up.
SS: Like three-week-old post rave pizza
GR: Yeah, or the dead animals. Anything that smells of semen, or shit. All the best bits. And the marshes are just different. Say you go to another part of London, a park where you can walk a dog. London Fields for example, it’s already functionally set out. But the marshes, you genuinely don’t know what it is. Well, maybe you do now because of us, and my book, but not many people go in there with any pre-written idea. I don’t think anyone still knows what it is. It’s an elusive place. The joy of it is, even people who have read my book would probably be able to go in there and still discover their own thing.
SS: I think the idea of the marshes has become very different since the idea of ‘edgelands’ and liminal places has become current. I worry about that a little bit because I wonder what the marshes was before middle class people started reading Edgelands [Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts] and getting into basic psychogeography and understanding liminal space. Presumably it was just a place. Language and writing often tries to appropriate places and make them understandable. Take the Romantics as an example. Before the Romantics, hills, the Lake District and the countryside were just a wilderness, it was ugly, no one wanted to go there because there were bandits and wolves there. Why would you want to leave the triumph of the Enlightenment in the cities? But the Romantics came along and said, ‘That’s quite pretty’. So for a while language became about describing this exciting new place. Then it got into the Gothic and it became clichéd and all the rest of it, to the point where you couldn’t write about it anymore.
I think Fantasy’s job, as a genre is to come along and reclaim the clichéd and the staid and the easily identifiable and described and make it weird again. I wonder whether these things are accelerated now, due to the Internet and instant media. I wonder whether the edgelands and liminal places, whether their time has already almost gone?
We’ve gone very quickly from edgeland places just being dumps, which possibly 40 years ago Richard Mabey was writing about, ‘look there is nature and beauty underneath that pylon, underneath that gravel pit!’ to everyone getting very excited about places like the marshes and saying, ‘look! It’s this place where nature and the city interact’.
It’s this awful way language has where talking about edgelands suddenly becomes a label you can stick on somewhere, on a place to explain. But, what I liked about your book was it takes this and says – look it’s not just that [edgelands], it’s deeper things, or it’s weirder things, or it’s the future. Your book is about making the marshes strange again. Because language doesn’t like strange things, language is about codifying and labelling. And the purposes of fantasy is to rip some of that up again
GR: Edgelands, the Farley and Simmons book – that was Radio 4 book of the week and that was probably a turning point for this sort of thing. Like you say, Mabey had been doing it since the 70s and I guess it’s a 20-30 year process to try and understand those industrial edgelands. It probably is accelerating now. But I never felt myself in that because ultimately what I like about the marshes is, selfishly, the imaginative journeys you take. In a way that I think it wasn’t necessarily that the marshes was the muse, but really what I’m talking about are those journeys in your head the ones that intersect between reality and imagination, when you’re out walking or listening to music.
The liminal land I’m interested in is that point between wakefulness and dreaming. You reach this point when you’re wandering around and daydreaming – it’s very hard to map or write down. The good thing about the marshes is they are kind of representational of that map in your head, so I’m very lucky to get a combination of the two. But I think the same could happen in a park, that is sculpted and is not an edgeland, the same in a housing estate or a tower block, or as I’m writing about now, the south coast.
SS: It’s like Canary Wharf. If you go to Canary Wharf, on a non-work day, it’s a really strange place. It’s fundamentally ordered and planned and humanised, but if you go when there’s no reason for you to be there, it is strange. The fact that it’s so over designed, so functional almost acts in opposition to that when it’s not doing its job when it’s just a bunch of buildings on a quiet day. You just realise how weird it is. While you’re there doing your job, rushing from the tube to your office, you don’t have time to realise actually this is strange. I think a park can be exactly the same.
GR: Well, that’s the fantasy element. I suppose it’s that Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere idea, that even in a city so populated as London, in parts of the city that are not edgelands at all, there are little windows of time where you can go and explore these places, in a childlike way with no one else around.
3:AM: Is it not the point that an edgeland is an impermanent state? Something becomes an edgeland only in context?
SS: Yes. Also, once it becomes identified as an edgeland, it can’t be an edgeland anymore. Because everyone starts going there and looking at it and it stops being a strange, unusual and underused space.
3:AM: So an edgeland is only ever in relation to the subject who is in it?
GR: It’s all psychological. The city of London becomes a psychological edgeland at certain times in the day, at other times it’s bustling and full of people. I remember as a kid, I went to Alton Towers with a mate after all the schools had gone back. The whole of Alton Towers was emptied, it was just us. It felt like a different place. My dad worked in Stafford so he dropped us off at the gates, so we were there when it opened. I think there’s something in that. There are lots of places that haven’t been explored at certain times of the day. Even the marshes, I was always walking at eleven in the morning on weekdays. Weekends I would avoid it because it turned into some sort of Vodaphone advert, lots of people dancing about in the rushes and things. I think the marshlands are very dependent on what time of the day it is. I’ve seen taggers, and the doggers and the prostitutes – they have a very different map of the marshes, a very different temporal space to other people. I think that’s why I was writing fantasy (especially on the blog) as much as what you might call psychogeography. That’s what it felt was happening. It was turning into a fantastical space. There’s probably another book to be written about the marshes, which I don’t think is an edgeland anymore. Those edgelands books, I don’t get bored of them per se, but like you say, there’s a sense of appropriation about them, and I didn’t want to appropriate the marshes and just describe it. I just wanted to write stories. So the marshes were the inspiration rather than the entire subject.
SS: Well, the biggest area of Fantasy writing with a capital F, as the commercial genre that’s been around since Tolkien, I’m kind of less interested in because, especially in terms of landscape, it is really, really traditional and that’s not something I necessarily associate with fantasy. I don’t think fantasy should be about the traditional. The Shire casts a very long shadow over Fantasy. Fantasy has to be in a silvern, idealised, European landscape. You can have slag heaps and grey waste where the dark lord sits, but everything else is essentially quite pretty. It’s New Zealand! It’s no mistake that Jackson chose to film Lord of the Rings in a landscape like NZ.
But fantasy doesn’t have to be like that, the ‘new worlds’ movement in Science Fiction which also spilled over into Fantasy, was interested in picking apart that and going against it. You have cities in Fantasy, and those I find more interesting because it’s not as easy, it’s less traditional. The notion that you can have fantastical happenings in the city is exciting. Literary fiction, in a way is much more adventurous and much more willing to take risks as to where it puts fantasy, than generic Fantasy.
Whether you’re talking about Viriconium in Mike Harrison, or even books by Bruno Shulz the Polish writer, who did these incredible fantasies set in essentially, small European towns. They weren’t using place as a convenient setting, they were writing very much about place. Extraordinary fantasy came out of it. Gaiman doing it with London in Neverwhere, and it is fantasy. Fantasy doesn’t have to be about green fields and mountains and winding rivers. It can be anywhere.
GR: In Russia, people called it absurdist literature, and they talk about its opposition to the writing of the day. I think writers like Gogol, whose stories that are set in places – it happens in Arthur Machen as well – where there are sudden shifts, like a nose or an overcoat takes on its own life, absurd happenings work in fantasy. But they’re quite terrifying because they happen in what you might term ‘realistic’ settings so you create a spread of reality apart from maybe one aspect – some law of nature, or some terrifying thing, it could be psychological or whatever, something that has been disturbed. I find those fascinating. These are things that wouldn’t be considered Fantasy, but that I find fantasy in them.
SS: Or Calvino – with Invisible Cities, an amazing book of one paragraph long stories about cities that Marco Polo had supposedly been to and he’s reporting back to the emperor. These stories are doing exactly that; they take one aspect and change it. There’s a city whose streets are full of earth and people have to burrow through the earth to get to places. It’s an idea that can carry no more than two or three paragraphs but it’s still this profound ‘what the fuck’ moment. Which a lot of traditional Fantasy somehow shies away from. I think, that’s okay, traditional fantasy pleases a lot of people, but it’s not setting out to engage with landscape necessarily.
3:AM: What you were discussing earlier; about liminal spaces and edgelands, becoming non-liminal as soon as they are labelled and defined, does that apply to Fantasy writing too? As you were saying about the Shires effect on Fantasy, once something, some world becomes established in Fantasy, does it become populated by lots of writers and loses the very originality that made it fantastical in the first place?
SS: It’s still for marketing purposes as far as publishers are concerned, curse their black souls! It is that very thing, it is Fantasy TM. You establish it so you can sell it to lots of readers. That’s why probably 90% of commercial Fantasy novels that have been published since Tolkien, have been set in largely pastoral, largely European, largely medieval settings. Because there’s the comfort of knowing that, ‘that’s where fantasy happens’. It’s not Tolkien’s fault though, you can trace this back to the Arthurian legends. In those stories, Arthur didn’t spend much time going down the back alleys of Tintagel.
GR: That would be a good book though. A claustrophobic urban, gritty drama of what Arthur gets up to on his days off!
SS: Yes it would! Anyway, it’s a genre called ‘Fantasy’, in inverted commas. Fantasy is something that happens in an imagined world, but if the writer is not imagining anything new, they’re essentially repopulating something that already exists. It’s the same as the vampire thing. I don’t think anyone thinks of vampires as a supernatural entity anymore. There’s just a group called ‘vampires’ who have set the parameter. They’re now less imaginative than most realist books that are written today. So that idea that Fantasy is more of an escape world, it’s not – the books are more like friends, they are comfort places.
GR: It happens with all genres. Romance has the same thing. SF has the same thing. It’s ‘welcome back to something you know, come and read a comforting text’. And now, edgeland writing is there too. ‘Welcome to the edgeland book – you know what to expect. We’re going to talk about flowers growing out of brick work, we’re going to have a little bit of canal and it’s going to be grimy, but it’s quite beautiful because there are swans on it’.
SS: ‘There will be rust, rusty things. There will probably be graffiti’.
GR: Yes! And that’s it, when you’re describing graffiti, no wonder the taggers make their graf as ugly and indecipherable as possible because if they do anything pretty there’s loads of middle class people, like myself, taking photographs as soon as they see it. It’s even the people in that landscape you’re writing about, having to go to darker more interesting realms, but they’re not easily appropriated. I say this in Marshland – ‘they are, where you are not’. You can find them, but they will move on. It’s the same with the kids, as soon as you work out where the kids are hanging out and taking drugs and partying, they’ll find a new spot, they’ll sniff it out. And the irony is these are the worlds the writer wants to go to.
SS: The thing is that part of the point of otherness or edgelands is that you feel uncomfortable in them, and most people, very understandably, don’t want to feel uncomfortable most of the time. So in terms of separating it out, in terms of edgelands becoming tourist destinations, for it to be truly commercial, most people need to know where they are, they can’t feel uncomfortable. It’s interesting, going back to Fantasy as a genre as opposed to landscape especially, there’s been a noticeable trend within some fantasies in the last five years or so, for them to have desert or Middle Eastern settings. It’s a strand within the whole genre. Presumably, as a result of the fact that we’ve been tied up in various nefarious, postcolonial wars that have been set in desert countries and the Middle East is something we’ve had to think about. But in Fantasy, very encouragingly, some operators within that genre have wanted to experiment with that. But it’s difficult to get them to sell. Most readers don’t want to go there, they are fans of the fantastic, but only so far as they are getting what they want from it, what they think is fantasy.
GR: Fantasy, for me, is the idea that there are unexplored places where you live that are fantastical, where you can slip from one shade of light to another. Like M. John Harrison, in the real world we live in you can slip into a liminal zone with everyone else around you unaware.
SS: The key to it is uncertainty, it’s about not being sure if you’re in familiar or unfamiliar ground, whereas, more conventional Fantasy purports to be about the unfamiliar but actually it is made resolutely familiar because you know exactly what you’re going to get. Whereas walking down the end of your road and not knowing what you’re going to get is still quite powerful.
GR: In most books there’s an element of fantasy, in life there’s an element of fantasy. Everyone has an imagination, more than half of your existence is fantastical – nonexistent conversations with friends, what happens behind the curtains of the house across the road, you know it’s everywhere.
SS: In Marshland are there episodes that most people assume are ‘real’ in fact entirely made up? And vice versa.
GR: Well, yes. I didn’t want to make it absolutely clear what was true and what wasn’t. Otherwise you get very segregated. It would suggest chapters with an announcement: ‘Everyone! We are now doing fantasy. This is the made up stuff’. Some people might think, oh well – I know I’m not into fantasy so I won’t bother with that. You get those true story obsessives, don’t you? They get angry when they find out it might not all be true. Remember what happened to James Frey?
SS: I’m pleasingly naive when it comes to these things. I’m very ready to take these things on board as having been possible. So for example the story in Marshland about the family during the Blitz – was a bear’s paw found in a destroyed house in the aftermath of a bombing raid? I don’t know, possibly it was – it sounded like a story weird enough to be true. But ultimately, I didn’t care if it was true or not, it was enough to just enjoy the story.
GR: That was the purpose of the book – if you bring everything onto the same plane, it’s wonderfully difficult to know. Readers start to ask, ‘is this a horror story, or are we talking about something that happened?’ Most of the time in Marshland, the non-fiction is weirder than the fiction! It’s the same with urban legends and the way we experience place – there is no difference between what is true and what is a fictional story. The stories everyone has of the murderer, or madman that lived in their home town – no one quite knows where the story has come from, it’s just urban legend, but it’s never genuinely segregated from the narrative you know of the rest of your area.
SS: In real life you don’t have the certainty of being within a genre to tell you whether that actually happened or not. For me, even as a publisher of the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Horror, I have an instinctive impatience with those labels because they are no more, no less than a marketing device. The only thing they are useful for is to market the books and allow shops to put them in a particular place and allow people to find what they think they’re going to get in the place where they think they’re going to find it. And I really do yearn for a time prior to the pulp magazines and prior to the identification of Fantasy as a genre post-Tolkien, where there was a time where there were just stories, and you didn’t know what you were going to get. Can you imagine reading a ghost story, not knowing it was a ghost story? If you go into an M. R. James ghost story, the moment a ghostly thing happens you identify it as ghostly because you are in a ghost story. Whereas if you didn’t know, you could have a really exceptional experience. If we’re lucky we all have that cliché of the inspiring teacher who lifts you above normal teaching. I had a wonderful English teacher whose big thing was how we read as a result of our framing devices. He was desperate for us to read books that didn’t have covers, didn’t have the name of the author attached to it, so we came to the text blind. He gave us a passage of something that described this girl’s body, found in a river. It was horrible. It was a really upsetting piece of writing. There was a very strong social conscience in it, immediately proffering these questions like had she been a factory girl? Had she been mistreated? What had happened to her? It turned it was from Three Men in a Boat. A comedy!
3:AM: In that case, how do you approach a second world fantasy [one that takes place not in our world as we know it]? Do you read it in the same way you would a Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction or otherwise set in our ‘real world’. What do you look for, are you a different reader?
SS: I think yes, you always have different reading hats; dependent on all the pointers you get when you pick the book up. I don’t read a literary novel with the same set of criteria in my head as when I read a slightly pulpy commercial Science Fiction book. But I think what you do with second world novels, whether consciously or subconsciously, is look for points of similarity between it and our world. For example, does it feel like the Italian Renaissance? Does this city look a little bit like Venice? Are the guys coming down from the north Viking analogs? I think when you’re reading a book set in our world and supposedly a fantasy, inevitably your antenna is twitching for those moments where there are points of difference instead. You probably shouldn’t be looking for points of similarity in a second world novel but in order to interpret it and to establish yourself in that world you often have to. There’s a school of Fantasy all about world building, dominated by the author’s endeavour to create a world, which you can dive into and be impressed by. Again, Tolkien labours under the endeavours of his imitators – he’s now seen as the archetypal world builder. When you’re reading a novel and the point of it is the world building, are you reading a novel or are you reading a travel guide? It can overwhelm the point of the novel, which is to tell a story. It becomes weighed down by all this, ‘I’ve created this fantastic imaginary city, and boy am I going to tell you about it’. ‘Look at this alley way!’ But we’re not going down it? “I know, but looook!’
GR: What you should really do is put all the effort into writing your imaginary world, put it aside, and then write the story. A good writer will create the map, then throw it away by the final draft.
SS: The really good fantasies in secondary worlds are the ones which hint at geography or history, but don’t give you it. Moorcock is fantastic at doing that. In one line he hints at an ancient empire that had ruled this desert kingdom thousands of years before, and that’s all you get! Then your imagination gets to do all the work.
GR: I think that’s true of writers like William Hope Hodgson, Machen and Poe too. Not just fantasy writers. They never try and explain the whole physiognomy, or the metaphysicality, or details of the world they are hinting at. What it is all about is, ‘we live in this place, and there’s something under the surface’. Usually a door opens, or something comes in the room or there’s a portal and you get a glimpse of something. Even in the film Alien it’s like this, or the really great horror films…
SS: The Steven Donaldson books, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant which first came out in the late 70s through to the 80s, they’re very clever because they take the idea of the secondary world and spend most of the book undermining it. Well, both undermining it and celebrating it, because Covenant is a leper and he has established this rigorous regime, by which he looks at the full extent of his injuries everyday and he maps them. He has to be very focused on his disease the whole time, the moment he lets slip, or tells himself that it is going be okay, the disease will overtake him. He finds himself in this world, ‘The Land’, and he’s healthy. He wants to believe in it but he can’t afford to because he feels if he does, he’ll stop this rigorous inspection of his disease and he will get iller and iller in the real world. He begins to worry that this whole land is just a creation of his diseased mind. The people in the The Land, have this chronic need for him to believe in them. He’s called Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, and every moment of disbelief in his mind allows the dark lord of The Land to gain in power, and he becomes the crux. It’s brilliant. Donaldson immediately gets under the skin of every reader, who’s reading it, thinking, ‘I want to believe in The Land, because it’s fantastic, it’s beautiful. There are really cool ninja type guys, there are giants. But every moment of resistance from Covenant means The Land gets more sick, and there’s this canker building through this land that mirrors his leprosy. He gets trapped in this ridiculous dilemma. It lasts ten books!
GR: A lot of my favourite writing is like that. Where it’s about the mental state of the character, or narrator. If there’s too much pressure on the mental state, in moments of crisis you escape to a different world. In which the laws are much more amenable to you, but you don’t really escape there because the same demons are still there, lurking in your constructed world. I love that sort of fantasy. It’s fictional landscapes that are built from your personality. Ballard did that quite well with Crash. There’s this thread of literature that is about psychological landscapes, about what the world looks like when you’re under massive amounts of stress. Escapist landscapes, paranoid landscapes, that sort of thing.
3:AM: What you seem to be talking about each time here, is landscape. Either one that is imagined or one that’s based in a reality – why is it often we use the landscape as the foundation and not the character as the foundation?
GR: I was thinking about Thomas Hardy recently. I think everyone went through a teenage Hardy period? No? Just me… Anyway, the idea of the pathetic fallacy. It’s interesting because in Hardy’s books the landscape is essentially a psychological extension of the characters and it portends, it tells the story, it tells you when evil is ahead. Like in Jude the Obscure when he’s desperate, it’s just muddy fields everywhere. Just at the beginning of the decay of farming, it’s all brown mud – it’s almost like his mind is creating these landscapes.
SS: Well, it’s really interesting that question – the Iain Sinclair book I’m reading at the moment, at one point the narrator makes this distinction between authors who are walkers and authors who are sitters. And the authors who are sitters are generally writing about the landscape of character, and the walkers, the character of landscape. Conrad and Proust for example. Conrad was a walker; a seaman, Proust was just not interested in the landscape. With Conrad it’s all about people going on journeys, be it up rivers in Africa or whatever. Proust is about sitting at home thinking about people.
GR: Yes, Proust is the mental traveller. You get books that are both too – like Ulysses. Bloom is the walker and Dedalus is the sitter, or the astro-traveller. I think it’s very difficult to think of a book, a ‘great’ book that doesn’t have a strong sense of place.
SS: Obviously, with all broad-brush distinctions the more you look at it, the more it breaks down. But it is an interesting thought – that there is a fiction of landscape and a fiction of character. I think ultimately, the weight of one book will largely lie in one area or the other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kit Caless is editor at Influx Press. He presents ‘Mapping the Metropolis’ on Resonance 104.4FM, a radio series exploring literature and place.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 20th, 2014.