Off-Piste Reading: An Interview With Matthew De Abaitua
By Sam Jordison.
This interview was conducted in late October 2007 in a flat owned by the writer Matthew De Abaitua, the place where he wrote most of his debut novel The Red Men. He no longer lives there, but he does still have the keys so we spoke in the quiet of his old sitting room, before decamping to the Prince George for (just one) too many beers.
Fortunately, that later conversation has not been recorded for posterity and our speculations on lactation and male dugs drifted harmlessly away into the beery fug of that wood-lined bar. Fortunately too, my attempts to record our earlier conversation on my Apple laptop succeeded and Matthew’s thoughts on The Red Men and the writing life can now be set down.
The Red Men is a novel brimming over with ideas, fantasies (often quite bracingly sick) and disturbing dystopian visions. It’s also very funny; as gleefully absurd as it is unsettling.
Set in a Hackney of the near future – or perhaps a parallel dimension – it describes a corporate attempt to grab money and power by creating computerised versions of real people that are there both to amuse and do the work of the rich and influential.
These simulations – The Red Men – exist within the imagination of a giant computerised intelligence, and are tireless, brilliant, creative and almost universally psychotic.
The novel’s narrator, Nelson, formerly a radical journalist but now a cog within Monad, the giant corporate machine responsible for The Red Men, soon finds himself immersed far too deep in an experiment going awry. His friend and colleague Raymond Chase is caught up in a murder and disappears. He’s cut off from his own family. He’s forced to battle his own conscience and to come to terms with the forces that want to destroy the Red Men. This anti-Monad opposition is led by a giant Dosser God, the God Emperor of Hackney, who controls his acolytes’ movements while lying drunk on a park bench, accepting tributes of meat and mobile phone batteries and basking in his own filth…
As the book’s current press release states: “The Red Men is at heart a novel about a character wrestling with his conscience, set against a pervasive and Orwellian vision of contemporary society: surveillance, automation, biotechnology, and their implications for our humanity.”
More simply, it is bloody good.
Since the idea of these interviews is to try and follow the pattern laid down by The Paris Review, I also asked a few of their questions in the second half, which deals more generally with MDA’s writing life.
PART I: The Red Men
3:AM: Hello. Is this working?
[A metronome sounds. An unfortunate consequence of trying to record the interview with the GarageBand application.]
3:AM: Hang on…
[Silence. I fiddle with the machine. Switch off the metronome. Switch on the machine. Victory! The interview begins.]
3:AM: Hackney is obviously a massive presence and character in the book… I guess in a sense it’s a dystopia… but also quite inspirational.
MDA: Where we’re doing the interview now is my old flat. The place I wrote the book in. It overlooks the site of the Hackney siege, which was the longest siege in British history. Obviously that had a big effect and a scene a little bit like the real-life siege opens the book, although the character who’s holding the siege is very different from the actual man – Eli Hall. I was always interested by Hackney’s ability to throw up scenes like that.
Hackney’s also, I think, a place of great flux and unpredictability. But within that, I have a very selfish perambulation. A very definite route through all this stuff… Going shopping, taking my daughter to nursery or to school, going to work. It’s a very finite line… If I ever chose to turn left where I normally turned right, because Hackney is so various and multifarious, I could have quickly entered a different world.
I also had this sense that there could be dark zones further out east where now they have the Olympic development. Places where you could just fall off the map altogether. So it’s not just this bit of central Hackney we’re sitting in, it stretches out towards Leytonstone and Stratford… I would go on long walks around those places and just feel like I had fallen off the grid.
3:AM: Raymond Chase – he does get lost in the bowels of the East End at one point.
MDA: Yes, he goes dark. There’s a great poem written in the East End during the height of Victorian squalor: “City Of Dreadful Night”. That inspired a scene where Raymond gets taken out by The Elk – a character who is teaching Raymond in the ways and magic of the street. He takes Raymond out into this city of dreadful and eternal night – where there’s no sense that the sun is ever going to come up. And he goes through the Pembury Estate, the demolished bits of the Nightingale Estate (real housing projects in Hackney), and they eventually ascend to meet the Dosser God, Leto, at the top of a soon-to-be-demolished tower block.
In order to write that scene I researched all the worst things that had happened in Hackney and just tried to cram them into one paragraph. To get that accumulation of horrors. Because, over time, you know, this is a perfectly acceptable place to live, but compressed, it’s unbearable… Certainly when I read that bit to my wife she was quite appalled…. Appalled that I’d let us live in this place and yet I’d thought these things about it.
It wasn’t really an opinion I was expressing just a sense… a sense… I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those nights when time becomes incredibly elongated – around four in the morning – and it just feels like it’s going to be four in the morning forever… And at that point you feel like anything can happen. I used to work as a security guard – and it was at that time that morality becomes inverted – and the possibilities are endless.
3:AM: I almost got the sense that you were living in Hackney as a psychic experiment…putting yourself through this hell just to see what results would come up…
MDA: Yeah, I love the place. You can just walk down the street and see half a dozen stories happening. I haven’t been spending as much time here lately… But I came back and walked down Dalston Kingsland the other day and I saw six or seven characters right away.
There’s this energy… An example came when the film rights for The Red Men were up for sale and Shynola — the company of animators who were interested in it and who happen to be based in Hackney too — were vacillating and trying to decide whether or not to do it. What happened was that there’s a character in the book who knocks on the narrator’s door and tells him she’s leading children on a walk around Victoria Park as a fundraising thing and asks him for money. They were reading the book at that point – and that same woman knocked on their door. It was like she had just risen out of the book and arrived at their house. And they being believers in serendipity took this as a sign that they should take the project on.
It is an endlessly giving muse – both evil and good – Hackney.
And you can’t go too far wrong if you want to write about it… but, you know, Iain Sinclair’s already got dibs on it.
3:AM: Why the title: The Red Men?
MDA: I wanted something that was striking. I did originally come up with the idea of calling the simulated people the Me2s. But that didn’t look very good on the page and it was also a bit interruptive. And I thought if I was going to have a technology that was going to permeate, it would have to have a less obstructive phrase.
Towards the end I had the idea that a brand like that should have a colour associated with it. And I thought of red because of the way it’s used in discussions of consciousness. Like how do we determine that we see the same red as one another. And The Red Men also crop up in Peter Pan as villains. All these associations… There are even “orders of red men” that I originally had no idea about. It was only when I was googling the phrase to see how safe it was to use that I came across them in America.
Also, there’s the fact that Orange Men was already taken.
MDA: Milk appears in the novel. One of the characters, Morton Eakins, the narrator’s immediate boss, is often found drinking milk or having milky coffee. It’s because Morton Eakins, as his name suggests, represents both birth and death. As in Mort, the French word for death – if you’ll pardon my French, and Eakins as in Babykins… Morton goes on a progression through the novel from being an adult to a baby.
I just thought he was a suitably malign character to have as a boss. He’s not a patriarchal boss, he’s like a child boss. I’ve often observed in office life that bosses have as many qualities of unruly toddlers as of patriarchs.
But milk… there’s a lot of meat in it as well. Meat. These things just float around in your unconscious… your kind of buried frame of thematic reference… and they add a lot of texture. They aren’t always articulated consciously, they just make you… feel like… there are patterns there but you don’t know exactly what they are.
3:AM: There’s a lot of unconscious physical disgust in the book, isn’t there? There’s the meat. And the Dosser God.
MDA: Yeah, there is a bit of body horror in it. The meat, now I think of it, also comes from writing it in Hackney where there is all sorts of meat on display. You go down Ridley Road market and there’s all sorts down there. Bush meat! It was something I walked past every day when I was writing the book because it was on the way to my daughter’s nursery. So in the book there are all these unspooling intestines and guts on display.
But it also fits within the thematic of the book. The Dosser God, Leto, who is the God Emperor of Hackney really represents forces around embodiment and his counterpart and …
I don’t feel like I’ve introduced the book yet…
3:AM: I’ll do that in the introduction.
MDA: Er, okay…
So, he’s the counterpart of an intelligence more based in the mind… The corporate version is computer based, but the fleshy Dosser God intelligence is attached to an embodiment of meat and flies… These are all part of him.
3:AM: At one point he’s called the Lord Of The Flies and there’s a sense that he’s magically controlling the…
[There’s a long pause as I try to think what I’m trying to say]
… the way the flies move around… and of course…
MDA: Yes… Sometimes, some of the powers attributed to him by the characters are a result of the fact that they have slightly paranoid and magical worldviews. They are people who have lived on the street and doss houses and squats, while being completely seeped in the world of Aleister Crowley. They’re probably autodidacts who have had heavy psycho-active habits and, you know, an off-piste reading list. So they will tend to attribute these things to Him…
But what I was originally thinking of him was that he would be able to keep track of each person in Hackney by assigning each of them a fly and he would have a scale model… I don’t think this is in the book. I think this is in the buried material… but he has a scale model of the town and he can keep track of everyone by watching the flies’ movements within this model. And the reason he needs his acolytes to deliver meat to him like they do in the book is so he has a continuous supply of flies…
3:AM: Right. That’s not in the book.
MDA: It’s not. There’s lots of stuff that I deliberately cut out so that they could be suggested but not too overt… Also because I wanted a “too muchness” in the book – this feeling that there’s an awful lot going on. But you can have too much of a too much-ness, so some of that stuff was taken out.
3:AM: So what’s happening with the mobile phone batteries?
MDA: Well… okay… I don’t want to give too much away. The explanation that’s given in the book – or attributed by the characters is that the Dosser God is housed in the unconscious of those different people and they suspect that he has customised mobile phone technology and implanted it them in order to house his migrating consciousness.
But a lot of this comes just as a kind of rush. A fever. Dream. It’s all towards the end of the book and is not fully brought up to the surface. I wanted that effect. You get the feeling that there’s something weird and horrible going on but it’s not always made totally manifest to you the reader.
But I kind of knew it. Or had dreamed it. Or had thought of it.
3:AM: Going back to the love-hate thing with Hackney… as much as a desire to be in the thick of things, I detect a really strong yearning in the book to escape. It features all these wild places like Iona… There’s a dream of rural isolation at the back of the book, I guess.
MDA: [Long pause]
I think anyone who lives in London constantly questions whether they should be living there. Particularly when you get to a certain – you know, Nelson the narrator is in his early 30s, he’s got a child. That questioning is part of the urban experience.
And I do love Iona. The other reason I included it was to do with it being a crazy place to have a meeting. It’s in Iona that Nelson and his co-workers are introduced to the technology and this seemed right because Iona has such a rich religious history (being the place in which Christianity was introduced to Britain by St Columba) and the business people in The Red Men do have a peculiar religious viewpoint based around Gnosticism. It seemed appropriate to have a place with Christian overtones to introduce their vision. There’s a kind of shadow narrative behind the businessmen that follows the rise in Christian fundamentalism… But I only wanted to partake of that, I didn’t want to reference it directly.
3:AM: Isn’t there some commentary in that the Americans in the book are far more zealous and dangerous in that regard?
MDA: Yes, Nelson realises that the project he’s been working on might be put to uses that he didn’t anticipate. There was a point when I was writing the book when I thought that one of the statements I wanted to make – or ideas I wanted to get across – was to imagine that everything that happened after 9/11 happened – and then you had a really weird dream about it. The Red Men is that nightmare.
I was interested in this thought pattern — you see it in things like Donnie Darko, which was released just around 9/11 (obviously it was made beforehand) – but it’s like 9/11 in that it’s about a split in the time streams caused by a plane crash. And also Michael Moore says in Fahrenheit 9/11, imagine if we’d woken up and Al Gore was President.
There was a sense that during that period – while all that was unfolding – that we’d gone down the wrong time stream… And I wanted to write a book about having gone down that time stream and dreaming about it afterwards… That’s what The Red Men is.
3:AM: What about the sense in the book of being overwhelmed by technology? And technology being so advanced that it takes on religious aspects?
MDA: This is true now. Microsoft Office. No one could tell you every line of code in that. It’s been built on and built on and really… it’s too enormous to grasp.
I got a sense, particularly during the dotcom boom, of people who were working with this technology who had no idea how it worked at all, and knew less than any reasonably savvy 13-year-old, but were spending millions of pounds on it…
So I wanted the people running the business in the book to have no clue how it worked… and to have had no hand in creating it. They had just acquired the licence and were coming up with a number of ways they could make incredible technology do quite boring prosaic things, just to make money… which felt to me like if you’d taken the internet during the dotcom boom and then had a dream about it afterwards. Because people had this incredible thing and they were trying to use it to sell pet food. It was the most tedious and prosaic use of technologies that potentially could have transformed humanity… Instead, they just wanted to make a buck until the next business quarter.
3:AM: As well as the dream element to the book, I also got the sense that it was like a gigantic comedown from the 1990s. So Nelson starts off and he’s all promise, as well as literally taking drugs – and then he has this horrible descent into adulthood.
MDA: Nelson’s back story is that he was the editor of a magazine called Drug Porn in the 1990s, which seemed like a great counter-cultural experiment to him at the time, but as someone else in the book says to him: “You won, everyone takes drugs and everyone watches porn”. And he just thinks, well, I didn’t really mean that. I was just hoping we could be a bit weird and a bit outré.
Certainly there’s 1990s comedown. The only poem I’ve ever written in my adult life was included in the original manuscript. Eventually I took it out, but it goes like this:
1990: Do you want one of these?
1999: Don’t you think you’ve had enough?
And I think that expresses Nelson’s experience of the 1990s. Because it was a silly period. Certainly in retrospect.
3:AM: That feeling that by raving you’re going to change the world.
MDA: Nelson says, that in his 1990s he was taking or recovering from drugs every single day. “I knew nothing about power.” I think that’s what people learned after 9/11. The iron hand in the velvet fist of power was unveiled for us all to see. In Nelson’s case, that meant he had to knuckle down and get a job.
Part II: The writer’s life
3:AM: Pencil, pen, typewriter or computer?
MDA: Pen around and about in a Moleskin notebook, generally on buses or trains. Then post it notes for plot and narrative and word processor for composition.
3:AM: Do you write in drafts?
MDA: Not really. Some of the sequences have been overwritten and overwritten… but really there were not as many drafts as I would have liked.
3:AM: How long did The Red Men take to write?
MDA: On average I would spend about 8 days a month for three years. Of the first year of work, which produced about 90 pages, only three pages survive in the final book. 87 pages have gone.
3:AM: When do you write?
MDA: It’s not the way I make money. So there’s generally one day a week of hardcore composition, 9am until 9pm. The rest of the week is spent preparing for that in off moments when I’m not trying to earn money.
3:AM: Obviously the money-earning experience feeds into the writing quite healthily.
MDA: Sometimes the humbling experience of having to go into the world and hussle a buck can be good for a writer. Certainly when I was younger I wanted to write about work… It’s how most people spend the entirety of their lives after all. Certainly my involvement with The Idler magazine meant these issues were brought to the fore.
And one of the things that interested me about the Red Men was the idea that even if you had your consciousness simulated and put in a computer and put in a world in which it could do anything, it would still have to work. And that was the initial joke that amused me. This idea, again, that no matter how incredible technology became it would still be used for tedious insufferable ends to do with daily work.
3:AM: You went to UEA, didn’t you?
3:AM: I noticed (bizarrely as it seemed to me), when Anne Enright won the Booker prize recently, that when the inevitable backlash came, one of the chief sticks that people used to batter her with was that she was somehow a ‘product’ of the UEA course… But her books couldn’t be more different from yours, both in style and content.
MDA: It’s a journalistic nonsense to say that people come out of those courses in a similar fashion.
As far as people I’ve known that have come off these courses… Or more specifically, the people in my year – there’s Tracey Chevalier, who is of course very successful with historical fiction, Susan Elderkin who’s written about Australia and New Zealand in a kind of magical realist fashion, Martin Bedford who’s written these great literary thrillers… They’re all completely different.
They’re all people who come from different walks of life and of course that shapes things far more. I was 22 when I did that course. Other people were 61. There was incredible breadth. Also, there was no taught composition when I did it. Malcolm would just get you to write something twice a term, and you’d have eleven people pick it apart for two hours. And that was it really. His vision was to give you the space and the time within your life to write. Which is a good idea. Useless, though, if you’re 22 and you’ve got all the time and space in the world. The last thing you need then is to be given a blank slate.
I did do an interview with him later about creative writing when I said to him that I would have liked a little bit more tough love. There were certainly other people there that were barking up the wrong tree too… going down blind alleys. They needed a good slap around the chops and to be told to go and look at the kind of books that people actually read and publish… and to stop writing these incredible deconstructions of the novel form, and, you know, scatological public schoolboy pornography or whatever they were churning out when left to their own devices. But he was very hands-off – and that was the way they rolled then. I don’t know how they do it now. Although my friend’s just taken up a creative writing position and they have to talk about chick lit, different genres… Whereas when I was doing it, it was all literary fiction or nothing. LITERARY FICTION OR DIE!
It’s one thing to write something with nakedly commercial aims, but you’ve got to imagine someone reading something. There were things… you know, I would persevere with it, and the people were very talented, but they were deliberately writing things that made Perec’s experiments to write a novel without the letter ‘e’ look like a mere bagatelle. They would write books without any characters, description, anything. Difficulty is not necessarily a virtue in the modern world.
3:AM: After UEA you got a job with Will Self.
MDA: It was actually during UEA. I got wind that Will was looking for a live-in assistant to help him with the things he was up to in that period in his life. And since I had no other plan whatsoever, that seemed like a good thing to do. A bit of on-the-job training. So instead of finishing my Masters… I did finish it, but submitted it in a week so I could leave with Will.
It’s funny because when I went to work for him he was a bit younger than I am now. I’m 36 now, he would have been about 33. And I often think to myself, imagine having a 22-year-old boy living in my house! He was living in a rented cottage in Suffolk. It was the early 1990s. He’d just split up with his first wife and all his possessions were in bin bags, so my first job was to unpack and organise that, because it was obviously a painful thing for him to do. I did transcriptions for him, answered the phone. He would go on book tours of South America or Australia… These would last for six weeks and I’d be expected to keep the Will Self office ticking over. But I didn’t have that many responsibilities because I was a 22-year-old — 23 maybe at that point — pretty useless man.
He’d walk around with chickens on his arm, stuffing them, making me smell them to see if they were off. He taught me the importance of clean work surfaces in the kitchen. He used to pretend to visiting journalists that we were a gay couple. I have no idea why. It was a pretty fun time.
3:AM: Do you think he’s an influence on you as a writer now?
MDA: He’s got a very strong style, so I wouldn’t want to attempt any imitation of that. I think we’re very different people. I don’t know. The whole idea of being satirical, or of using literary fiction as a satirical vehicle I suppose would be the main influence.
3:AM: Does he have all those tremendously long words in his head, or does he use a thesaurus?
MDA: He used to speak glowingly of the role of the thesaurus in a writer’s armoury. And I think that’s fair enough. But he does know it all… He’s on the ball. He knows what he’s talking about. I haven’t had a close relationship with him for a long time, so I can’t speak for him now. I can only… I can’t speak for him at all in fact! I wouldn’t dare!
3:AM: British science fiction is another big influence. In atmosphere at least.
MDA: I did a TV show about British science fiction (SF:UK) which was a crazy thing to work on because I did it with Max Carlish who went on to stalk Pete Doherty in that notorious documentary. But that experience is another interview…
But I like British science fiction…
The most influential thing in that regard I’d say is Michael Moorcock’s Dancers At The End Of Time… In that there about eleven people left at the end of the Universe, they can do anything and they just throw parties… They transform the landscape to create these kind of 60s happenings. I was really interested in characters who could manipulate reality itself – and what that would do to them. I was drawn to that infinite possibility.
There’s a lot in The Red Men about living in a way that is completely unbounded by the laws of reality – and yet still coping with the fact that you’ll never be able to fly. Because as a kid it’s quite upsetting to realise that at no point in your life are you going to sprout wings.
Other influences I guess would be the magical systems explained to me by Grant Morrison… who’s acknowledged at the end of the book. And Alan Moore. Both comic writers. Enemies, almost. Opposing wizards!
But I just love the situating of the fantastical in the every day. And since British reality is my every day… It seemed enormous fun to situate these fantastical happenings within it.
3:AM: What’s next?
MDA: There are more Red Men books that could be written. Maybe. Or, maybe not. I’m working on something else at the moment though, which for now, is probably best not talked about quite yet…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sam Jordison writes for the website of the Guardian and is the author of several toilet books: Bad Dates, The Joy of Sects, and the brand new Annus Horribilis: A Chronicle of Comic Mishaps (read an extract here). He also co-edited Crap Towns and Crap Towns II and wrote long articles that he wishes more people would read for a book called “Everything You Know About God Is Wrong”.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, November 11th, 2007.