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Sand & soot & dust & dirt

Craig Wallwork interviewed by Christiana Spens.

Craig Wallwork’s recent book of short stories, A Quintessence of Dust, follows outcasts and oddballs let loose and at loss in modern day England. From a binge-drinking Minotaur to an old man calmly digging a hole to Hell in his back garden, these characters are both terrifyingly familiar and entertainingly strange. We speak to Craig Wallwork about his background in art and film, his underworld inclinations, and his forthcoming novel, The Sound of Loneliness.

3:AM The stories in A Quintessence of Dust struck me as incredibly visual. You mentioned recently that you studied art and film when you were younger, as well. How does your art practise influence your writing? Have you ever considered a graphic novel or a project that uses both writing and art?

Craig Wallwork: Never. Least not a graphical novel where I provide the art. I leant on art from an early age because I was terrible at school, a real daydreamer. While everyone around me was learning algebra and the periodic table, I was sat at the back doodling, sketching cartoons of my friends and teachers and then putting them into silly scenarios. My first commissioned work came at school. A boy wanted me to draw a woman with her breasts hanging out while holding a big dildo. He paid me with a Mars bar. You have to remember, back in the 1980s, porn was not so readily available. Back then I was a regular Larry Flint. My whole life has just been about finding ways to tell a decent story. First it was through art. Then film. Then music. And now it’s all come back to prose. Art allowed me to open doors in my mind that many keep closed. I imagine there are some people who have read my work and wished I had kept most of them locked. I would love for someone else to illustrate one of my books though. That would be cool. So yes, if anyone reading this is up for the challenge, let me know.

3:AM: As the book goes on, the stories become increasingly surreal and erotic, but never seem to lose an underlying gentleness, no matter how violent or bizarre the characters are. What draws you to present these people, or creatures, with such affection?

CW: There’s that Sioux prayer: O Great Spirit, keep me from judging a man until I have walked a mile in his moccasins. I try to do that with all my characters, however evil or flawed they are. It allows me to understand them better, and in turn, present them in a way whereby you sympathise with their mistakes, not solely judge them by each one. Like in ‘Men of Blood’: that story is very personal to me. It is about myself and a friend. Throughout my life I looked up to and respected this person; he protected and watched over me. I created him in the form of a Minotaur to allow me distance from the history of the “real” story. But I never wanted him to be a monster with very little depth. I made him vulnerable just like any man. It’s the same with ‘The Whore that Broke the Camel’s Back’. I wanted to write a story about social acceptance and how certain minority groups find it difficult to establish themselves, or be received by others, be that by the way they look or gender preference. But I couldn’t just write about that. Instead, I wrote about an unrequited love between a talking gay camel and a zoophile. And while that seems outrageous, most people have said how much they empathised and felt so much compassion toward the camel by the end. It is easy to slay, cast out or place labels on those that intimidate us, perplex or scare, which at times is necessary, but a writer cannot afford to do this. They have to be fearless as well as compassionate. And as uncomfortable as it may be at times, a writer has to grab the tail of the Devil and never let go.

3:AM: There is a sense of being pulled into a modern Underworld in A Quintessence of Dust, where Minotaurs have fights in pubs and demons turn buses over. There is an almost joyful anarchist spirit to these stories in which contemporary England falls into surrealism, and people run with it. What made you want to show normality disintegrated, and so bizarrely?

CW: I think a lot of it happens quite naturally in my stories because I grew up in a terrible area of England. I wanted colour in my world but everything back then was grey and black, sirens and tears. To avoid depression, I would extract the atrocities I saw and paint them in varying shades of the fantastic. That’s how you cope. This is why I find it hard, even now, to read stories and novels that are gritty and wretched with aggression. Give me the invisible men, monsters and freaks and I’m happy. This is why I admire Israeli writer Etgar Keret, and Canadian author Andrew Kaufman, both of whom have an annoying and unnatural ability to design stories that lure you into believing the surreal is not surreal, but normal. And that’s the key, really, tricking the reader to accept the abnormal over the normal and loving it without question.

3:AM: Sometimes I found the characters to be stranger than the surreal scenarios they were faced with, even though they appear conventional enough to those around them. Are you questioning the idea of what is normal, what is odd?

CW: I like odd. I write odd. To be honest, I dislike the fact most people are trying to get “fixed”. I was talking about this subject recently with a writer friend. Society is evolving into a state where people strive for normality. Back in the Victorian age, to be fat was considered a sign of wealth and high esteem. Now being fat is a symbol of laziness, depression and loneliness. If someone arranges the labels on their tins of food to face the same way in the cupboard, they have an obsessive disorder, but twenty years ago that same act would have been considered practical. Depression was a symptom cured with ale, and panic attacks were not cured with pills but long walks in the open air. I’m not playing down these disorders, or conditions, but merely illustrating the need modern society and medical bureaucrats have placed in trying to fix people, when really, if the disorder isn’t life threatening or hindering your life, then these little defects, blemishes at best, are what makes you different from all the other people. In a time when everyone is so busy trying to get fixed, no one has stopped to think if being broken is what really makes them unique. People refer to me as weird, strange, perverse, certifiable, and my reply is always the same. Thanks.

3:AM: Are there any particular writers (or film-makers, or artists) who inspired these stories?

CW: Not really. The only person who inspires me the most is Nick Cave. I remember buying the Badseeds album No More Shall We Part from a market stall and forgetting I had it for about six months. One morning I decided to listen to it on the way to work. Cave’s words lit the powder trail straight to my imagination. ‘Darker With the Day’, ‘God Is In the House’, ‘Love Letter’ – I never realised until that point what you could with words in such a small timeframe. That same evening I drove to the bookstore and bought And the Ass Saw the Angel (Cave’s debut novel) and that was me done, hook, line and sinker. Ask a writer to read work by another writer and one of two things will happen: they’ll feel indifferent toward the book and love the writer because they pose no threat, or they’ll love the book and hate the writer out of envy. Cave made me hate him. But inspiration is really about opening yourself up to new experiences and picking from its bones something you can work with. Nick Cave keeps the embers of inspiration burning within me, but I draw ideas from things like music, movies, an advert, even a word. ‘Gutterball’s Labyrinth’ came from just hearing the term gutterball and using it as a noun to a condition I have called BPPV (for instance).

3:AM: Tell us about your forthcoming novel, The Sound of Loneliness.

CW: I should point out I’m terrible at pitching my novels. If choosing a novel was based solely (and sometimes they are) on the synopsis alone, none of my manuscripts would have made it to print. I’ve been very lucky. That said, I’ve attended readings knowing very little about the author and when I’ve heard them explain the premise of their novel, they have left me rapt. The novel is always shit, but still, they have the gift of the gab. I have no such skill. But in the interest of research, my own that is, I’ll give it a go. The Sound of Loneliness is about a struggling writer living in Manchester during the early 1990s who believes that success can only be achieved if you suffer for your art. Having embraced poverty into his life, and nearly dying as a result, he has written one short story, which is terrible. It is only while spending time with his dying uncle does the writer finds a muse in the form of a teenage girl. I wrote the novel many years ago after binging on those Underbelly and Beat writers like Bukowski, Kerouac and the Fantes, both John and Dan. It also pays homage to books like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Victoria. A very cool new press called Perfect Edge picked it up and it’s currently going through the meat grinder with an anticipated release later this year. It’s different to what I normally write. It’s neither surreal nor erotic. It’s a very mature novel, literary, but funny too. I’m very excited about it.

Christiana Spens graduated from Cambridge (Philosophy), and is the author of The Wrecking Ball (Harper Perennial 2008), The Socialite Manifesto (Beautiful Books 2009) and Death of a Ladies’ Man (3:AM Press 2012).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 20th, 2012.