One Cancelling Out the Other
David Rose interviewed by Gavin James Bower.
There are music fans, and there are music fans.
You know the type. The kind that likes a band, bangs on about it then instantly disowns them when they make it; when they go mnstrm.
The same can be said of books, with authors considered by some to be radical, subversive — even, ‘anti’ — walking the perilous line between success, and ‘selling out’. See Hitchens and his support for the Iraq war. Or, and albeit a slightly lesser crime, Tom McCarthy’s Booker shortlisting. (I for one — and I mean that in the solitary sense of being the only person in the whole industry who didn’t like it — have never forgiven him for C.)
But reading Vault, the debut novel by David Rose — a man who’s been writing for over two decades across small presses and innumerable magazines — I feel like one of those fans; like I’ve unearthed something valuable in a sea of incessant shite, and can already sense just how easy it will be for this one to move from cult to, well, not cult.
And yet, curiously, I simply can’t wait for that to happen.
Vault, published by indie press Salt Publishing, is on the face of it a thriller. It’s also an anti-novel, toying with the reader and what it is to be a narrator — and an unreliable one at that. Our hero, or anti-hero, discovers that his life story has been appropriated by a novelist. Through 100 or so pages of deft, deliberate and utterly delicious prose, Vault charts this mission to reappropriate his own life and, crucially, his death.
It’s an astonishingly good book, which, for a debut novelist, seems like a good place to start.
3:AM: Why on earth have I only just discovered your work? I feel cheated. Tell me, where should I start…?
DR: It is unsurprising that you haven’t come across my work, since, although I have had around forty stories published since my debut, they have been scattered around in many different little magazines, over a period of twenty years. So, although those included some high-profile magazines such as The Literary Review and Zembla, you would have to have been a very avid reader of the small presses to have encountered many of my works.
As to where to start, I’m not sure you can. Apart from stories in the revived London Magazine and Warwick Review, and the Redbeck Press anthology You Are Here (ed. Bill Broady), the only story possibly still in print is in the recent Comma Press anthology Brace (ed. Jim Hinks).
If Vault doesn’t end up losing Salt money, there may be a story collection to follow. And I do have a story in Salt’s anthology Best British Short Stories 2011 later this month (another product of Nick Royle‘s boundless dynamism — I don’t know how he does it).
3:AM: The bio info on you is quite revelatory, as all press releases should be (but rarely are). What is it that’s attracted you to ‘small presses’ over the years? What appeals to you about the smaller, independent publisher — and what do you think are the problems inherent in taking that route?
DR: My main attraction to the small presses was that, as a short story writer, there simply wasn’t an alternative. I started writing before the advent of online publishing, but there was still then an array of very good small magazines publishing fiction as well as poetry: Panurge, Iron, Tees Valley Writer, Odyssey, and later — for a while — my joint-owned Main Street Journal, em, Rue Bella…
Most have gone now, from the attrition of overwork and underfunding, but they were always the seedbed for new talent, and I have never understood why publishers never thought to fund them purely out of self-interest.
3:AM: Was there ever a point at which you could’ve — or should’ve — gone a different way?
DR: As a short story writer, which I still am, I don’t think there was any other route. But it is one I have enjoyed. It gave me a lot of experience and it has established many friendships, so it has been a rewarding route. And I do still believe in apprenticeships for writers; learning the hard way, and not being exposed too soon to mainstream pressure.
3:AM: I had a chat with Nicholas Royle about the book, and he put it this way: ‘Only Salt Publishing had the balls to publish this book.’ Do you think the mainstream publishing industry lacks, shall we say, courage? And is this, in your view, something confined to the current slump — or is it in no way a new thing?
DR: I wouldn’t wish to comment on the reproductive capacities of mainstream publishers. But what they do lack is an interest in the short story, even now in the supposed resurgence of the form; unless you’re American, or possibly Irish, short stories are simply not a priority with the mainstream. Approach any mainstream publisher — or almost any agent — with a collection, and the first question — always — is: ‘Are you working on a novel?’
Which is why I wrote Vault: purely so I could say, ‘Yes, I’m working on one while you consider this collection’. It didn’t work at the time. The collection wasn’t taken up, hence its original title — “Posthumous Stories” — and I put both in my bottom drawer while continuing to submit and have accepted individual stories.
Vault was resurrected by chance, good luck. I was talking to Nick Royle on the phone for some reason (I still hadn’t met him then) and he asked in conversation if I’d written anything longer than the stories he’d seen and reviewed. I mentioned Vault, and he asked if he could read it. He liked it, and passed it to his agent, who sent it off to some of the independent publishers, none of whom took it on, partly, we suspected, because of its length (publishers seem to buy novels by the yard over here).
When his agent downsized his agency, Nick offered to take over, become an agent representing me and Tom Fletcher, and such is Nick’s reputation that he placed us both. I will always be profoundly grateful.
3:AM: The cover’s bound to come up in conversation about this book — it’s terrific. What input did you have, and are you normally involved in that side of things? It’s clear from the Acks you like it…
DR: The cover too is the result of good luck and generosity, in this case on the part of the brilliant designer David Pearson. Through his then girlfriend’s sending me work for Main Street Journal (alas too late; it had folded), I got to know David while he was still working for Penguin (he tried to interest them in my work, to no avail).
Later, after Salt had taken Vault, I phoned David for advice on text books for a neighbour wanting to do Graphic Design. In conversation, I told him I had after all got a publisher, and he immediately offered to design the cover, as a personal favour.
The result, as you have seen, is brilliant, and a huge advantage in stimulating interest in the novel.
3:AM: How involved are you with publicity? One thing a new author has to quickly discover nowadays is just how proactive you’ve got to be — there’s no room for being an introvert, it seems. Writing, for most, is such a solitary pursuit — and so personal. Publicity’s not. I’m curious to know what your views are on the writer as rampant self-publicist…
DR: I am far from being a rampant self-publicist; it is not in my nature. And I suspect that self-publicising ability is in inverse ratio to writing ability. But maybe I’m cynical, or just wrong.
I do understand the need for it; the sheer quantity of books published monthly requires some personal angle, but this is the side of publishing I dread.
My writing ‘career’ has consisted of writing a story, sending it off, occasionally getting it accepted, and getting a free copy of the magazine, or even a fiver on top. That I can cope with.
Fortunately, Nick Royle’s reputation and innumerable contacts have generated some publicity already, such as this interview (a world first).
3:AM: Tell me about the ‘anti-novel’ angle. I remember talking to Stewart Home many years ago, and he described the novel in typically gnomic fashion as ‘paradigmatically bourgeois’ — therefore, Home reckoned only a ‘bad’ novel could be truly revolutionary. How did you approach that?
DR: I suppose, as a short story writer, my stance is not so much anti-novel as anti-novelist: the bland assumption that they are somehow the grown-ups of the literary world. But although I was initially conscious in setting out to write Vault of a desire to ‘subvert’ the novel, that soon got forgotten in the mechanics of writing.
The description was revived later; David Pearson asked if we wanted to incorporate a strap-line in the cover. This was soon after Tom McCarthy‘s Booker-listing and the subsequent bandying around of the anti-novel idea yet again in literary history. So we used it.
It was from the start, though, an anti-novel in the sense of matter and anti-matter; one cancelling out the other.
3:AM: You’re quite playful in the way you treat ‘the novelist’ and what it is to be a narrator. Did you have fun with that? It was one of my favourite things about Vault.
DR: So, yes, I did initially have fun with the idea of subverting the novel form, having my cake and eating it in that I could use all the novelistic tricks, such as the Greek mythical references (the Centaurs, the ‘windy plains’ of Troy…) and question them from the point of view of mundane lived reality.
But in retrospect, it became more even-handed. I see that the ‘novel’s’ heightening of experience into mythopoeic realms does satisfy some deep human need. So I hope the reader sees it in terms of choosing which version is most satisfying.
3:AM: The novel’s very short, and your style of writing prose as well as dialogue throughout clipped — it works really well. Is that a style you’ve consciously adopted for this novel — or developed, should I say — or is it something that comes a bit more naturally?
DR: Yes, it is very short. Even so, it was the longest thing to date. I had hoped to make it longer, but bearing in mind that I never really expected it to be published, I relaxed and let it find its own length. I didn’t want to pad it.
When Salt first accepted it, they thought it too short to stand alone, and were going to publish it with a selection of stories. Then, as a result of reading Bill Broady’s brilliant novel Swimmer — which is actually 2,000 words shorter than Vault — they decided it was in fact viable on its own.
The clipped style now comes naturally to me, from both the short story form and from the poetry I wrote in an early Creative Writing group (poetry is, I believe, a very good discipline for prose writers). And I wanted to keep it taut. I like the feeling of holding power in reserve, so to speak.
3:AM: To follow on, and wrap up, there’s a tremendous amount of stuff going on — more than most people manage to pack in to a novel twice the size. We’ve got espionage, intrigue, a compelling love story — and some pretty vivid accounts of cycling, too. It brought back bike rides with my brother and dad as a kid. I recall complaining one time that my bike was ‘too heavy’. Anyway — and I’m not going to push you on whether you’re a cyclist — what made you take on that period of our history, particularly the war? And did the setting come second?
DR: A few friends who read the MS. commented on the layers of meaning, and I suppose there is quite a lot going on, but most of it was unintentional. Nothing was planned in advance; it was ‘through-composed’, to misuse a musical term. It all stemmed from the original idea. Some account of its genesis might be helpful.
I am a big fan of W.G. Sebald, and loved Austerlitz. I was thus intrigued by the later controversy surrounding it, which you will probably remember: the woman claiming that Sebald had stolen her life story, which she’d given in a documentary; Sebald’s admission of that; his agreement to acknowledge it in later editions; his death before he could do so.
I was struck by her need for that acknowledgement. I began to wonder how I might feel confronted with a fictional version of my own life. Even more: to have my death stolen. That was really the starting point. So from that point of view, the bulk of the novel was, to me, filling. But it had to be interesting filling.
Since my own life has been extremely boring, spent mostly in the Post Office, I faced the task of inventing a life sufficiently interesting to warrant fictionalisation. At the same time, I needed to give it what authenticity I could from personal experience. Hence, the cycling theme. I have done a little amateur time trialling — I wasn’t much good; like writing, I took it up too late in life — enough to fake the rest.
The period and setting followed from that, and to some extent from the period and subject of Austerlitz — but where the sniping came from, I’m not sure. Possibly an earlier story, ‘Last Days Of Elizabeth II”, I’m not sure. Everything was made up as I went along, subject to research. And I had to hope the research was accurate enough to convince. I still have doubts on that. Military historians et al. will, I’m sure, write in to correct me. But it is the best I could do.
And if they don’t like the novel, they can still admire the cover.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 10th, 2011.