The Last Mad Surge Of Youth: Mark Hodkinson
Interview by Ben Myers.
Identity is everything. All the best writers – or bands, artists or film-makers, for that matter – have a strong sense of identity strengthened by their understanding of time and place. Mark Hodkinson’s debut The Last Mad Surge Of Youth is a perfect example of a novel that works because the author thoroughly understands time, place and his subject – in this case the rollercoaster journey from idealistic small town punk to bona fide rock star; a journey undertaken by many during the period between the late 70s and late 80s. Some emerged triumphant, never to be taken seriously again (Bono, Jim Kerr, Bob Geldof), others had a taste and declined the offer to save the world (Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch), others trod a middle ground and kept their credibility intact (Joe Strummer, Mark E Smith and co).
Hodkinson creates his own mid-level rock star in John Barrett, once huge successful but now sizzled and flailing. As a counterpoint to the mid-career burn-out there is former band-mate Dave Carey, a local journalist who is equally as dissatisfied with his lot penning non-stories when he could be writing novels. Inevitably the two find their lives intertwining once again. The prevailing themes here are the idealism and energy of youth coupled with the reality of middle age and friendship, with a subtext that wonders whether the anti-establishment philosophy of punk can successfully be adhered to when you have a mortgage and kids and the music of 1979 seems such a long time ago.
Mark Hodkinson is so convincing because as former musician and northern-based journalist and author you suspect he is an amalgamation of his characters. He understand them implicitly and therefore in The Last Mad Surge Of Youth has created one of the most convincing novels about music, the music business and all the baggage that goes with it yet. He also single-handedly runs Pomona Books, one of the most consistently excellent (and beautifully designed) independent publishers in Britain.
3:AM: The Last Mad Surge Of Youth offers a very convincing portrait of what it entails to be in a band – the initial idealism and sense of unity, the brushes with an exploitative music business, followed by the inevitable disillusionment, drink problems and parting of ways. Why is it that so few novelists seem to accurately capture the music scene without resorting to cliché – and were you inspired by any other particular rock-related novels and authors?
MH: I know bands inside out. I’ve been in and around them since I was 16. They are fantastic for bringing together different personalities and drive and ego and squashing them all up. I have met just about everyone – the madly ambitious, the talented-but-lazy, the insecure, the weirdoes, the normals, the megalomaniacs the whole lot of ‘em.
I’m sometimes insecure about my writing – who isn’t? – but I know that every aspect of life in a band, pre-fame and post-fame, is an absolute truth in the book. I’ve read very few novels about rock music, to be honest. Like most people I’ve always found them a bit tinny and rubbish and just stupid, quite often. I didn’t like [Iain Banks’ 1987 novel] Espedair Street all that much, which everyone keeps mentioning. I hope people are sceptical of mine but move into it and feel safe and secure and find a proper, rich story. In the book I look long and hard at punk and new wave and its legacy – how it was supposed to be forever young but everyone has now grown into middle-age and how this is reconciled with all that hope and desire for autonomy. I hate clichés. I might have a character speaking them occasionally but I doubt you’ll find a single one in any of my last two books. It feels like a physical pain when I see one in any writing.
3:AM: The novel is very episodic and engaging. It might sound corny, but the continuity is excellent. From one writer to another I’m interested to know a little about your writing process and how you maintain the flow of the book, especially as it is rumoured to have taken fifteen years to complete. All of which I suppose is a long-winded way of asking: do you write every day? How long for?
MH: I worked and worked at the continuity. I must have done 50 revisions of the book, no exaggeration, each lasting up to two months at a time. I looked at every word, every line, and questioned why it was there.
Originally it was a random series of pieces that I slotted together later. It had to be episodic to accommodate the two different time-frames. I’m not always a fan of episodic work because if you’re a fan of one bit, you’re always being diverted to another, which might not hold your attention as well. To avoid this I made the episodes quite short. I’ve had lots of comments from agents and publishers about this – some liking it, others not. I’m not bothered any more. I will always write what I want to write and if I like it (well, love it) that’s all I’m bothered about. I spent years and years trying to face the world but it can face me now, bugger it. When I’m working on my own material and not editing the other Pomona books or undertaking journalism, I try to write for about six hours a day, every day. I am never happier or more at peace with the world and myself as I am alone in a room with the pc, writing. It makes the rest of my life so much better if the writing is going okay.
3:AM: Your publishing house (cum-record label) Pomona Books has a very strong identity that seems anchored to Northern England, without ever appearing parochial or too inward-looking. You also publish some very important authors associated more with the North than literary London – people who have helped shape perceptions of the north, such as Barry Hines, who is most famous for the greatest GSCE-studied text ever Kes, poets Ian McMillan and Simon Armitage and the hallowed Hunter Davies. Did you set out to develop this identity of Northern-ness, or has it accidentally developed as you’ve published more writers?
MH: I don’t want Pomona to be identifiably ‘northern’ because I know this will lead to us being too easily bracketed and, therefore, dismissed. I hate all forms of parochialism. I’m not one of those northerners who hates anything southern or has an inverted snobbery about it. We wouldn’t dare say that about black people, would we? Yet it’s okay to generalise and stereotype the north or the south. I loved Hunter Davies’ book The Glory Game which was about living in London and supporting Tottenham, so that wasn’t particularly northern.
In Simon’s book, he is writing about three specific conflicts and although he’s from Marsden, there’s nothing overtly ‘northern’ in his work for us. Next year we’re publishing the biography of Lotte Berk, the London-based exercise guru of the 1960s, and a huge biography on JD Salinger – both books contain nothing about the north of England. I realise I’ve gone on a bit here and I didn’t mean to – I’m not that bothered how we’re perceived on a geographical basis. I just want it to be at least an accurate reflection and not an assumed one.
3:AM: In setting up Pomona were you inspired by any other specific publishing houses or record labels?
MH: Like many people I always looked out for the orange Penguin books and took it as a bond of trust that everything they published would be forensically-edited and at least interesting, even if a particular book failed in other areas. I know it is incredibly idealistic but I wanted that kind of trust in Pomona’s books. I always sensed with Penguin that the people creating those books loved reading and the whole aesthetic of books. I suppose, in ‘branding’ the Pomona books, I took as an influence the likes of 4AD, Factory, Rough Trade – labels who understood that every aspect of the production was important. I have to trust an author on every level – from the choice of cover artwork, the typesetting, the lot of it. It’s his of her duty to make all this absolutely spot-on, even if it means going into battle with stupid, pushy people at large publishing houses on a daily basis.
3:AM: Here’s a question for the book fetishists. Your books look very good. How important is presentation – paper, typesetting etc – to you?
MH: Very important – see above. The paper we use is special book-weave stuff that is more expensive than most papers but beautiful to touch. If you don’t like the words on the pages at least you can get off on rubbing it between your fingers. It’s not like that horrible white paper that leaves you snow-blind and you just know costs 10 bob. I was lucky to know Christian Brett of Bracketpress who is a very talented typesetter (he does The Idler and has worked with Damien Hirst) and is as dedicated to making things just right as I am, probably more so in fact. He’s a pain at times with his pedantry and his addiction to high art but it has meant the books look beautiful. I do fall out with authors occasionally, often about covers. If I don’t like what they come up with, I will say so and risk losing a book over it. It’s never got quite that bad but if it did, I wouldn’t back down. I know that sounds a bit stroppy and I’d do anything to avoid it, but I don’t want to look back at Pomona’s collection and be unhappy with it, from any perspective. Like I said, I’m pumped up on idealism. Or maybe it’s stupidity.
3:AM: With talk of major redundancies and advances being cut by 75% – all the usual tales of doom and gloom – the publishing industry appears to be in trouble. Do you think that out of this period the good smaller publishers – most of whom are can’t risk a single book failing, will unearth the classics of the future while their larger competitors chase the mighty dollar?
MH: I’m not sure. We’ve still to see a book break through from a very small publisher and make it big. They talk about small publishers when they’ve a turnover of £5 million, so I don’t know what that makes Pomona et al. I don’t think that just because you’re a small company, you’re inevitably going to find better writers or have a higher commitment to the aesthetic of books. Publishers are like people – some you like, some you don’t, some have taste, some don’t. A friend recently bought me that great book of 700 Penguin covers and I was shocked to realise the sheer breadth of subjects they covered. As a snapshot of our culture then and now, it was devastating.
That was a mainstream publisher under all kinds of commercial pressure yet there was such an emphasis on intelligence and art and finding out what was going on behind the subject matter. The majors long-ago reneged on this. I wonder whether it’s simply a truism that people are less interested these days, less clever, I suppose. That argument will never be resolved – whether the public gets what it deserves or whether it is let-down or led along by outside forces. A lot of bookish people surround themselves with similar folks and think that is the world, when really they’re little specks of life among a much greater one, which has much more mainstream tastes and largely governs what it published, stocked and sold.
3:AM: Before your writing career you played in bands who supported the likes of Stone Roses and Pulp, and it’s fairly obvious that Last Mad Surge Of Youth was written by someone who has been on that side of the fence. Who have you been listening to and reading recently?
MH: My favourite band for the past five years or so has been Nada Surf. They’re a power pop group from New York. The tunes are fantastic and the singer (Matthew Caws) conjures up these little homilies which are very, very simple but say everything you want to say, mainly about staying defiant and forgiving people and believing in love, man! Other current favourites that everyone must check out immediately include: Levy, Rock Kills Kid, Guster, Band of Horses, For Against, Deja Vu, The Rifles, The Stills, Battle, In Flight Safety, Karate, Salaryman, Jeffrey Lewis, Eef Barzelay, Shout-Out Louds, Material Issue, Kaki King, Golden Rough, The Horrors, Blktop Project, Empire of the Sun, Tommy Guerrero, Youth Group, Whipping Boy, Fountains of Wayne, Bromheads Jacket, Day One, The Rosenbergs, Ella Guru, Magnet, Remy Zero, Silversun Pickups. I’m not good at recommending books because I only half-like most of them and rarely think I can do so whole-heartedly. I think few books these days are authentically perfect. Even mine!
3:AM: Do you plan on releasing any more albums on Pomona?
MH: Nope, no plans to release any more records. I’ve done that one – and failed! It was also more people to fall out with. I set up on very idealistic lines but got too much grief from managers, band members etc. I did the records because I loved the music but I couldn’t stand all the to-ing and fro-ing and arguing. At least with books I’ve only got to deal with the author, so life is generally more straight-forward. I think people are so pre-programmed to be cautious and sceptical that they bring this to everything, even when they meet people like me who basically do things because it’s fun and believe in them enough to get involved. I’ve felt like screaming many times, ‘But I’m a good guy’. They’d probably just think, ‘That’s a new one.’
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Ben Myers writes poems, reviews, novels, interviews, biographies and blogs.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 31st, 2009.