Smoke Gets in Your Mind’s Eye
Stuart Evers interviewed by Gavin James Bower.
Stuart Evers is late.
I’m in Chiswick, loitering outside someone’s family home, staring at the newly installed blue plaque celebrating the neglected genius that was Patrick Hamilton.
Stuart’s idea. When I suggested a location for our chat about his upcoming debut, Ten Stories About Smoking, he came up with Burlington Gardens and an adjacent pub, The Barley Mow.
His poor sense of timing’s all forgiven, though, when he arrives armed with two bottles of Stella. ‘It’s what Patrick would’ve wanted,’ he says, handing me a beer and struggling to capture the plaque, in the dark, on his not-so-smart-phone. ‘Shall we go?’
Interview started, I ask about Hamilton — a writer known as much for being not known, as he is his characters; the likes of George Harvey Bone of Hangover Square, quintessential loner, and loser.
‘I am genuinely attracted to losers, what it is to be a loser,’ he says, finishing his beer and binning it by the side of Chiswick High Road. I still have half left. ‘If you read the collection, the optimism I have for writing, publishing — whatever — is simply not there. But I kind of feel like, in quite a lot of ways, I’ve never really reached the level that I thought I was always capable of. Probably because I’m a bit of a slacker.’
Stuart is 34 years old and a veteran, relatively speaking, of the London literary scene. Bookseller, editor, critic — and now writer, with a debut about to come out on Picador — he’s as comfortable talking about the future of the agent as he is Georges Perec and the Oulipo group, or how it’s ‘spivvy’ to smoke the stub using your thumb and middle finger, as I find out later.
Like his writing, there’s simply no pretension when it comes to Stuart — and no lack of self-awareness, either.
‘I’ve always found it fascinating,’ he says as we take a seat in the ample beer garden, despite the cold, ‘the idea of your sixteen-year-old self coming back to haunt you. My sixteen-year-old self was just a fucking mess. But let’s take it on to my eighteen-year-old self, when I’m at university having a good time, and he asks me, “What’s going on?” Well you’re now coming up to 35, and you’re pretty happy. “That’s good, that’s nice.” You’re also in the process of getting divorced. “Right…so what happened there then?” Best not go into that. You’ve had your first book published, though. “Fucking brilliant!” Short stories. “Really?” Yep — stories. “Really…ok, what’s the title?” Ten Stories About Smoking. “Still a smoker then?” Yeah, you gave up for three years — and now you’re smoking again. “Oh, I see…nice…so what do I do these days? Work in publishing? Full-time writer” Erm…no. You work at a telephone communication company with some people who genuinely like Jeremy Clarkson. “Who’s Jeremy Clarkson?” He’s like a cunt from the future…’
[Pic by Kit Ryall]
I pick up on the self-deprecation, and ask how it feels to debut with short stories. For many writers not blessed with a strong backlist, or even just the clout to make it happen, this sort of thing’s unheard of — that is, until recently.
‘There’s been quite a lot of success with short stories lately, and the two big prizes — the Sunday Times and the National Short Story Award — have probably helped. Also there’s the Wells Tower collection, which I don’t think anyone really expected to do as well as it did, the David Vann book, obviously, and before that the James Lasdun collection, which is fantastic.’
‘So it’s a case of timing?’ I suggest.
‘I think there was a feeling that perhaps there was something to be made out of short stories, and it was the right time. But if I’d written the collection three years ago I don’t think it would’ve got through, not without the sales figures for Wells and for David. I think they suggested that there was a market for those kinds of books — even though my book’s quite different to both of theirs.’
TSAS does exactly what it says on the tin — or rather, the box; Picador’s special boxed edition comprising ten, tight tales of pub people, small dreams, and thwarted ambition. Real life, to you and me, but when smoke gets in your eyes.
‘It’s about this idea that the most depressing thing is to have small dreams, and not have them come true. Every character in the collection has small dreams, they don’t ask for much — they just want to have a family, or they want to be included, or they want to be at peace with themselves. But they can’t, because they’ve been thwarted for whatever reason — whether by family members, or by lovers, or by circumstance. They’ve been hampered, in that way. Those are the kind of stories that I’m interested in.’
I’ve known Stuart for a while, from reading his reviews to following his tweets, to going out in Chiswick to engage in a bit of literary necromancy and, let’s face it, learn how to smoke without looking like a spiv. Still, I’ve little understanding of how TSAS came about — and just where the collection fits in his own, personal backlist.
‘It was just the kind of right time — it’s just luck — but when I started writing them I didn’t expect them to sell at all. I did it as a project for my own vanity—‘
‘Really?’ I interrupt.
‘Yeah. I was just sick to death of the novel I was writing. I was really down, and very depressed about the whole thing, and genuinely thought that maybe it wasn’t going to happen. I’d written a novel before, which was just rubbish, and I was halfway through this other novel, which I’d planned meticulously, knew where it was going, but couldn’t get right. Then I went to Book Club Boutique, and that’s one of the biggest catalysts for this happening. I spoke to Salena [Godden] — who’s now a friend but I didn’t know her at the time — and said I’d really like to read something, and she was, like, “Yeah yeah definitely, you should read at the next one…”’
Book Club Boutique has been launching, and lauding, new talent for years now — in fact, Salena Godden and crew probably have more mentions in the acknowledgements of young writers than anyone else in publishing right now; the likes of Laura Dockrill, Lana Citron, Dean Atta, Sabrina Mahfouz, Nikesh Shukla, Richard Milward, Kate Tempest, Niven Govinden, all part of one big, happy BCB family.
‘I was on the radio at lunchtime — BBC Radio Scotland, talking about Amazon’s tenth anniversary — and I got the afternoon off work. I was wandering around — I went to Borders, y’know — and then I realised I’d left the story that I was going to read at home. I went to the Phoenix Bar and I wrote the story out in long-hand, in the bar, from memory. I read it and noticed that everyone else had pamphlets and all that kind of thing, but it was still really supportive. There’s that curious scene, which has grown up around people who’ve, if not given up on the dream of being professional writers, still retain that hope and that enthusiasm — and think, “Well, we’re going to have fun with it, and we’re going to enjoy it.” Basically as soon as I left there I thought, “This is the first time I’ve actually properly finished something that I’m happy with.” This was the first short story that I’d written, from start to finish, where I thought at the end of it, “I’m pretty happy with that.”’
Turns out, the story Stuart ended up reading that night is in the collection: ‘What’s in Swindon?’
The last time I’d seen Angela Fulton she was leaving Wigan’s World Famous Winter Wonderland dragging a three-foot stuffed rabbit through a field of dirty fake snow. I’d won the luckless animal for her moments earlier, but it had not proved the conciliatory gesture I’d hoped. Instead, Angela had stormed off in exasperation and hurled the rabbit onto a pile of rubbish sacks by the exit. I watched her leave and in an impotent rage headed to the refreshment tent and got drunk on mulled wine. By the time I got home, all of her possessions were gone.
The stories — ten, because cigarettes come in tens but twenty is ‘too long’ — almost all came from ideas he already had, ‘so it was very easy to pull together’.
One came about from something he saw in a Dunkin’ Donuts between Sacramento and Carmel, way back in 1992. A man, whom Stuart assumed to be a Vietnam vet, had one of those American plastic ashtrays, the big black ones, with ten cigarettes burning simultaneously — an image that would find its way into another story, ‘Some Great Project’.
Other influences were found much closer to home. One of the stories, ‘Things Seem So Far Away Here’, is based on his brother, Gareth, and his grandmother — ‘an intriguing woman, to say the least, who just seemed to like upsetting people’.
One year, Stuart explains, Gareth was given a jumper his grandmother had knitted, ‘lop-sided, black with crooked diamonds — obviously from a pattern but she’d clearly been drunk while she was doing it’.
‘As soon as she took this thing out of the bag she’d brought it in, the smell of cigarette smoke was just overwhelming. It was foul — like this mist had descended on the kitchen. And bear in mind she was smoking at the time. The bits that were meant to be white had gone this nicotine-yellow colour. So, gleefully, I called up to my brother to come downstairs and get his present, and Gareth goes, “Oh that’s lovely, I’ll just go and hang it up…” — and we’re, like, “No, you’ve got to put it on!” So he had to wear it. He’s never liked smoking his entire life — he’s always been dead against it — and he had to wear this scratchy, ill-fitting, humming garment. And again that stuck with me, perhaps because it riled my brother.’
Reading the collection, you’re struck by the empathy of the writing, the way Stuart clearly feels for his characters in a way mere moralists don’t — and the concomitant lack of anything even remotely didactic. This is short story writing at its finest, stripped of anything showy; perfectly crafted, each opening paragraph grabs you by the balls, before tickling them, gently, until you can’t help but yield.
In the hallway of my grandmother’s old house there was a glass-fronted bookcase full of hardback novels. Since my grandfather’s passing they had remained behind the glass, only exposed to air when my grandmother slid open the glass to dust the shelves. The books had such fanciful titles, such garish spines, that I could not help myself. Whenever Gran fell asleep, I would steal in to the hall, slide open the panes, and thrill at the dusty bookish smells that were then released.
‘A lot of what I write is about self-delusion. One of humanity’s great traits is that you can delude yourself, so even at a level where you know that you’re deluding yourself, you’ve deluded yourself so that doesn’t even matter. It’s like the kind of people who say, “I’m mad, me!” Well, you’re not mad. You’re not insane. You’re not even mildly wacky. If you have to say, “I’m mad, me!” — you’re not. But the delusion is there.’
This can apply to him, I suggest; where he’s come from since starting out in the book trade, deluding himself over the kind of writer he’d turn out to be, to the place he’s arrived at today — stripped of preciousness and ego, a better writer, and completely and utterly obsessed with delusion.
‘It’s interesting…’ he says, musing over the dregs of his pint. ‘I’ve never really thought about it like that — but that’s actually a very good point. It’s very easy to delude yourself that you’re doing one thing, when in fact you’re doing something completely different. This kind of culture of entitlement around certain kinds of writers — and this applies to unpublished writers, mid-list writers — the expectation that they’re always going to be published, they’re always going to be in print, they write whatever they want to write and someone will publish them; it’s not only wrong, it’s unhelpful. There are some incredible writers now who are struggling to get published, but they get published — as a rule…’
What’s the difference then, I ask, between a talented but underrated author, like Patrick Hamilton, and a successful author?
‘Luck,’ he says, stubbing out his cigarette, then smiling. ‘Luck — and timing.’
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011.