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Interview with a Mardy Old Bastard

Simon Crump interviewed by Steve Finbow.

Author of Neverland, My Elvis Blackout, Twilight Time and Monkey’s Birthday, Simon Crump has been described as funny, sick, surreal, and Marmite-like. His books are not easily categorized – that’s a good thing in an era of pre-packaged novels written by ghostly committees. Steve Finbow pumps Simon Crump for info on writing, neighbours, and his new book on Émile Zola.

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3:AM: What is the first mistake that someone trying to write humour almost invariably makes? What goes wrong almost invariably?

Simon Crump: I’m not sure why you’re asking me this question really. I don’t see myself as being a ‘humorous’ writer, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuffed into that hilarious pigeon-hole anyway.

I think people try far too hard to be funny when they write. I think you should always be yourself as a writer. If what you’ve written turns out funny… then it is, even if you were actually trying to tell a sad story.

I have a good mate who is naturally funny, but when he says to me… ‘Right, I’ve got a really funny story for you now’… I already know it isn’t going to be funny and that he’s just about to make a proper twit of himself.

Which is funny.

3:AM: I think most writers and artists are kleptos – I half-inched the first question from The Paris Review – have you ever stolen anything artistically or in another way such as shoplifting?

SC: As a writer, you’re always on the lookout for stuff. And when people share personal details and stories with you, it always ends up getting used, even if they specifically tell you not to, and even when you promise them that you won’t.

I remember a few years back now, there was a knock on my door late one night, and when I opened it, there was a crying woman on the step, my neighbour who’d been having problems with her husband drinking too much and then self-harming. She said she needed my help.

So we both went round to her house, and there her husband was, sat at the table in their swanky designer kitchen. He was brandishing a Wiltshire Staysharp knife and his forearms were latticed with dozens of fine shallow cuts, every single one of them seeping blood. He was also naked except for a cowboy hat.

So between us, we took the knife off the husband, cleaned him up and stuck him into some clothes. Then I made the happy couple some nice strong tea, said I was there to help any time they needed, gave them both a big warm neighbourly supportive hug and pulled a very concerned yet caring face.

And all the while I was thinking… ‘This is brilliant. I can use this’.

Was it Nabokov who said that there is a piece of ice in the heart of every writer?

Well, there is in mine. A bloody great big chunk of the stuff.

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3:AM: Do you have a metaphor or simile for writing?

SC: Not really. I came to writing from a background of being a fine artist and a musician, so I’ve always had a pragmatic approach to the whole ghastly business. For me, writing is something you keep working on until it eventually turns out right. There’s always room for improvement. You have to keep it simple though… and simple is hard, really hard.

All I ever have to say about writing are the same three things:

1.You have to have something to change.
2.Get it on the page and struggle with it.
3.Make it less worse.

3:AM: What do you learn about yourself during the writing process?

SC: 1. It never gets any easier.
2. You’re only ever as good as the last thing you’ve written.
3. You’re on your own.
4. You really are on your own.
5. See above.

3:AM: So far you’ve tackled two icons of the 20th and 21st centuries – Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, do you think there’s something innately absurd about being a celebrity however mega or meagre?

SC: Yes I do. ‘Celebrity’ for its own sake seems like a ludicrous conceit to me and it always seems to bite back. My books about Elvis and Jackson were intended as sympathetic portrayals of incredibly talented individuals who had lost their way; people who had once been musical forces to reckon with, whose ‘celebrity’ eventually took hold and diluted their lives.

I have written three other books which are not about celebrity, you know… a novel for example (Twilight Time).

3:AM: Do you ever write while under the influence of drugs?

SC: Nope. Absolutely not! I have never, ever, taken drugs. And neither did Elvis or Jackson.

3:AM: Could you provide a potted history of the UK over the next ten years?

SC: Nope. My Elvis Blackout is coming out again in August 2010 though. It will also be available as an app. for the iPhone and I’m putting together a cast of people to read out the audio version. I’m not reading on it… I might play a bit of slide guitar in between the stories though. And that is about as far into the future as I can, or even want, to see at present.

3:AM: You are currently writing a book about Émile Zola… Why?

SC: I’m obsessed by Émile Zola’s work, and have been for a very long time. I remember my dad giving me a copy of Germinal to read was I was 13 and being absolutely transfixed by the desperation in that book and above all, its grinding panoramic feel.

As a 13-year-old, Germinal really was a glimpse into another world for me. It felt like growing up as a reader, leaving behind stories with ‘hopeful’ or ‘meaningful’ endings and developing a taste for the real stuff, for the tart and bitter experience of degradation and failure. Which pretty much has been how my own life has turned out.

There’s such a lot to take in with Zola; the research, the detail, the crowds, the weather… basically what everybody says when they say nice things about Zola. But for me… it’s how he does it all that holds me to his work, how he controls it all, how he takes down all that scaffolding of research and painstaking observation and how he leaves us with those towering edifices of Germinal, The Earth and L’Assommoir. Anybody could have made 1200 pages of notes about the French railway system if they really wanted to. Only Zola could have done that and then turned them into the monster novel of La Bête Humaine.

Zola is the main man for me. Always has been, always will be.

3:AM: Your books are visceral and excremental, using body parts and body fluids as humorous devices, what are your favourite and least favourite body parts and emissions?

SC: Are they?

Well… if they are, I suppose that links right back to Zola. Visceral and excremental were at least two elements of his ‘naturalism’ which set him apart at the time and which continue to make his books read like contemporary fiction — as opposed to the work of some of his other more ‘Victorian’ counterparts. So yes…visceral and excremental are elements of Zola’s work which I admire and which I would hope to refer to in my own stuff.

People are people aren’t they?

You can be ever so handsome and ever so brave and ever so posh. You can roll your ‘R’s’, drag your ‘A’s’ and even pinch your face up into a little French point when you say ‘Pari’ instead of ‘Paris’… but you’ll still be needing the toilet.

3:AM: I laughed like a doped-up drain while reading Neverland, how do you laugh and who makes you do so?

SC: Above all, I like The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, and have done since I was young. For me, Mr. Pooter is the ultimate comic character.

I tend not to laugh much these days. I usually just say ‘now that is really funny’ and then I pull an ‘amusing’ face.

But then I truly am a mardy old bastard.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Steve Finbow is looking forward to a busy 2010. Two books of non-fiction, a collection of short stories, and a new novel should hit the bookshops both digital and real during the next 18 months.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 5th, 2010.