The White Stuff: An Interview with Tony White
Interview by Richard Marshall.
3:AM: You’re a writer. Where did it all start?
TW: I started writing because I went to art school in Sheffield thinking that I’d make films, but never got beyond writing down the ideas and reading them out to people. I never got as far as a camera. These readings gradually gathered some kind of audience, and in the mid-late-eighties I found myself reading these things out in performance art venues around the country; these ranged from art galleries to music venues who’d suddenly discovered that there was an audience for this stuff, and that this audience bought lots of beer. For about five years or so that was the only outlet — none of the things I was writing were designed to be published. I used my own texts and found texts as well, so I ended up doing these rambling readings which got a bit of an audience around the country. There was quite a scene at the time. But after a while I noticed that it didn’t matter whether I was doing a reading in the ICA in London, or the Bullring Shopping Centre in Birmingham, it was always the same hundred people who attended this roving performance art audience. There was also a definite time limit on how long you could ramble on for. These factors started to feel like limitations; they became too confining and I wanted to take it all a bit further — use a bigger canvas.
Road Rage! was my first published novel, back in 97. I’d written another one before that which never went anywhere — really because it wasn’t good enough. One chapter ended up being published in Technopagan, the second Pulp Faction anthology and that was pretty much the only decent chapter in the whole book. I’d spent two or three years writing this stuff, which is what I think a lot of people do with their tentative first novels: I spent a long time writing this great pile of shit. And in about 95 I just knew one thing and that was that I didn’t want to spend the next three years writing something else that would never get published. This was about the time that George Marshall of S.T. Publishing up in Scotland had started reprinting the Richard Allen novels. I’d been switched on to the Richard Allen books back in the mid-eighties by a friend of mine called Roy Bayfield, a writer, poet, performance artist who I knew from that scene. He used to read out passages from Richard Allen books — that was part of his act — and George Marshall reissuing these Richard Allen books triggered a conversation one hung-over morning in Sheffield. There was something in the air, at that time, definitely. Victor Headley’s Yardie had come out, and Stewart Home‘s Red London had come out; Acid Casuals by Nicholas Blincoe had come out too, and you could sense there was something going on here. People were appropriating Richard Allen for their own ends. One thing though: I didn’t feel that any of them were being as crass and stupid as Richard Allen had been, and I’d felt that this was important. I wanted to reclaim his stupidity. Road Rage! came about because of a bit of a joke where Tim Etchells, Roy Bayfield, another friend called Robin Arthur (who’s part of Forced Entertainment, the experimental theatre company that Etchells directs), and myself were trying to work out what Allen might be doing now if he were still churning out these tabloid-fed potboilers. These novels which almost preceded the cults they were writing about. This was the dying days of Tory rule, and it seemed that the only two ‘youth cults’ that were winding up both the tabloids and the government were teenage single mums (who were being blamed, ludicrously, for all society’s ills), and crusties. And I didn’t fancy writing an exploitation novel about teenage single mums — so I plumped for crusties. Road protesters. So I then had to establish a couple of ground rules. One was that the novel should be written in no more than a couple of weeks. And the second rule was that you should do absolutely no research; none whatsoever; this is fiction we’re talking about, after all; if you don’t know it make it up! Thirdly, picking up on Richard Allen, there had to be a least one transcendent act of sex or violence in every chapter. Tim and Roy and Robin forgot all about the conversation, but I just went home and started writing. Two weeks later it was finished. It’s fair to say that Richard Allen couldn’t get me through that fortnight, it wasn’t quite enough to do that, so I pulled in a load of cod Celtic schtick, from some of Moorcock’s potboilers; dragons and runes and stuff like that. I was really pleased with it and sent it to everyone, thinking they had to publish it. I mean, this was exactly the kind of book that I wanted to buy. It had everything as far as I was concerned. Crusties! Dragons! A juggler who meets a hideously painful death! The East End of London! What more could you want? And of course none of those big publishers ‘got it’. Then I realised that George Marshall was probably the only person in publishing at that time who would even begin to understand it. He did, fortunately. And he got it out in about six months.
3:AM: Where did Road Rage! sell?
TW: Hardly anywhere! I’m only half-joking — it got into some shops. Well, one of the things you learn fairly quickly about publishing is that small publishers just don’t have the clout to get books into the shops in any serious quantity. But the book got loads of press — really engaged and positive criticism. We also started getting one or two letters from American prisons. Lifers. This was nice. Because tattoos feature quite a lot in the narrative, it got reviewed by all the big international tattoo magazines. And these magazines get passed around in prisons, it seems.
3:AM: What was the motivation for putting together the Brit Pulp collection?
TW: Just developing that idea about the writers who were emerging in the mid-nineties, who seemed to be ignoring any orthodox ‘literary’ cannon, and taking some kind of cue from popular fiction of the sixties and seventies. The ones who were any good, that is. It felt like an important moment that no one was picking up on. I didn’t see this as an anthology at first. It started off as the beginning of an idea of doing maybe a bit of journalism where I could pull these people together for a feature. But once I got talking to everyone I started to realise that there was a critical mass here, that this stuff had enough weight to be a book. The key to it was then talking to people like Michael Moorcock who was where this stuff was coming from and realising that it was more interesting to pull the two generations together, rather than just say this is where it was coming from. I wanted to see how these two generations could work together. And the book emerged out of that collision. Everyone I was working with recognised themselves in what I was trying to do. Suddenly there was this book, and also it was good timing because Sarah Champion’s Disco Biscuits had just come out, and that had sold quite a bit more than the usual one thousand copies that anthologies are expected to do — like sixty times more — so suddenly publishers were taking notice of anthologies. So Sceptre, who’d published Disco Biscuits gave me a deal for Britpulp!. It did quite well saleswise, sold a bit more than the average anthology, and it’s still in the bookshops now. It seems to have quite a long shelf life, and people are still referring to it. It didn’t have great coverage — critically — at the time, except from Michael Bracewell, who recognised the landscape.
3:AM: Moorcock is walking back on stage.
TW: I think he never went away — Mike Moorcock is one of the most consistently interesting English writers. And with this career which started when he was a teenager, Moorcock provides a link (I mean he actively creates a continuity) with a whole load of novelists that have been overlooked by the contemporary literary mainstream — what Iain Sinclair characterises as ‘the re-forgotten’. People like Jack Trevor Story, Gerald Kersh — some of the most vigorous and brilliant writing in English of the mid-twentieth century — check out Fowler’s End by Kersh if you don’t believe me. It’s just been republished by Harvill. And Moorcock has this tremendous body of work — unique. But I can see what you mean, and it’s something he’s said himself: that he comes in and out of fashion.
Coming back to Britpulp!, I do think it’s a personal thing also. I mean, when I was at primary school I read every book in the school library within a couple of years, so I started using the public library in town — this was Farnham in Surrey, where I grew up. The best books in the town library, I quickly discovered, were the Gollancz science fiction anthologies. Well, perhaps they just stood out because they were these big yellow volumes, you know. And the New Worlds collections, and I discovered that for me at least, these were more interesting than the Ellery Queen mysteries which I’d been reading simply because I recognised the name from TV. So SF kind of took me into my early teens. And there was a continuity here. A lot of what was happening in New Worlds was so close to what was happening in music — after all, Moorcock was in Hawkwind — they were part of the same scene and I guess the more kind of fractured, darker, troublesome end of science fiction for me seemed to cross over into what was happening in that other culture that I was becoming aware of: this would be around ’75, ’76… Well, after my childhood of borrowing SF anthologies from the public library, once punk happened, that kind of energy went into music. I mean I was too young to go to gigs. But I was into music in the way that suburban teenagers can be; buying records. Listening. The world that Michael Bracewell dissected so acutely in The Conclave and Perfect Tense. I love the line in Perfect Tense, I’m paraphrasing but he says something like, ‘a generation who emerged from their bedrooms ill-equipped for a battle that was never fully engaged.’ What a line! That’s exactly what I recognise from my teenage years in Surrey. It probably wasn’t until that new wave moment passed away that I started reading again. I think Burroughs‘ stuff had just been put out by Picador — it had been reclaimed from the old pulp SF imprints who’d been doing it since the late sixties — and Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. I think I must have been the perfect demographic specimen for Picador at that time, practically every book I bought in the early eighties had that white spine. But Acker and Burroughs especially became kind of avatars through whom it was possible to go back and explore a particular modernist trajectory of experimentation that they seemed to me to represent. I was a typical teenager — people whose records I had, I’d buy the books they spoke about in the NME. It’s like Jeremy Deller’s exhibition of art works by Manic Street Preachers fans — where someone exhibits their collection of every book that’s ever been name-checked by the Manics. I can relate to that. You know, I discovered Gertrude Stein because I heard Laurie Anderson talking about her on Radio 1 when ‘O Superman’ was out. Of course I quickly discovered that Gertrude Stein was far more interesting than Laurie Anderson.
3:AM: It’s interesting hearing about those Gollancz anthologies. There’s a science fictiony element in Charlieunclenorfolktango.
TW: Totally. Charlieunclenorfolktango was a strange one. Of all the novels, that’s the one I’m most proud of, I think. Initially those three policemen arrived in a cameo way in a tentative draft of a sequel to Road Rage! (which has never been published). I’d really enjoyed writing this — and had a vague hankering to do more — then Stewart Home asked me to contribute to Suspect Device and I just thought here’s a chance to set those policemen free. So I wrote this short story which Stewart didn’t publish in the end — the way he put it was that it was ‘out of wack’ with the rest of the book, which was fair enough! But it was interesting writing that story. I’d thought I’d be able to do quite a lot with a short story about these three policemen in a riot van, but there was too much to say, I think. Certainly more than could resolve itself in a couple of thousand words. I couldn’t get beyond the narrator, who was one of the policemen, justifying what it was he was doing being in this van. That didn’t feel enough. I wanted him to keep talking, so I just carried on, and it became a novel. So the whole novel is just the narrator, ‘Locky’, talking. The idea was to take an ‘off the peg’ Philip K Dick narrative structure (one of those paranoid short stories, like ‘The Third Kind’) and drop it into this police van. And the only other thing I could think of — and I wanted it to be done quickly, I didn’t want to hang about — was that I thought I needed one gratuitous event to put in the mix with the Dick narrative. The obvious thing was an alien abduction — which functioned partly as a ridiculously elongated pun — but also this narrator had such a tortuous way of thinking, and talking, that I wanted to really give him something to talk about if you know what I mean, something that would really stretch his very literal sense of logic.
I was working for the Post Office whilst I was writing this. I mean literally: I wrote Charlieunclenorfolktango at work! And I felt that using a phonetic depiction of speech was really crucial. Ordinary speech is excluded from literature. I didn’t want to use standard English for Charlieunclenorfolktango, because I’d have had to put apostrophes in every other word — it would have been ridiculous. This seemed very important to me at the time; it still is. There I was, working in the Post Office, and surrounded by guys who spoke like that. But where are these voices in literature? They’re erased, absent. And if you bear in mind James Kelman’s idea that ‘diacritical marks are the literary stigmata of class war’, and go back to Dickens and Twain who were not afraid to use a plurality of voices and cultures in their writing — you can quite easily see that Kelman is right. That was one thing that contributed to the idea that this was something important to do. Also I felt that using apostrophes rather than phonetic writing would have lent support to the wholly erroneous idea that there is something missing in this way of talking and in this language — it becomes characterised by absence — but there’s nothing missing! This was quite a challenge. Something about the act of writing it phonetically made it quite difficult to physically write it because I couldn’t ‘unlearn typing’. I had to write it longhand and there was something about that. It slowed things down. The speed I could write it was the speed the narrator could speak and think it — and further down the line that’s the speed you have to read it at. It slows everything right down. The collision between the reader, the writer and the narrator in that laborious moment was something that was quite interesting, and which fuelled the novel. I mean ‘laborious’ in a good way…
3:AM: It’s quite a difficult book though isn’t it.
TW: Well, it is and it isn’t. It takes a couple of pages to get into the groove. But it is quite a confrontational book I suppose. I didn’t set out to write a difficult book. Like with Road Rage! I felt, well: phonetic English, alien abduction, what more could you want? This is the book I want to read. As ever, that doesn’t necessarily prove to be the case, and people either seem to really love the book, or to really hate it. Initially I did some readings from it — pre-publication. Readings are quite important to me. They force a particularly rigorous kind of editing. Reading something out loud, you discover pretty quickly what’s wrong with it — and any lack of integrity sticks out a mile, you just think ‘I can’t read that!’. So I was doing readings from it before it was published, before it was finished, even, which with that book, because it was so challenging to write, was very useful to the process. I don’t think I could have written that book without doing the readings. I was working with this good friend of mine, a musician called James T Ford, a keyboard player who used to play Hammond Organ for The Jam on those early eighties singles.
This became a real gig for us — we were doing it a couple of times a month at festivals, spoken word events, and at places like the ICA. And Swells — Steven Wells — happened to come along and see one at the first Clerkenwell literary festival and he was trying to start a publishing company and he said that this was exactly what he wanted to do. So we tried to find a way for Attack! to do it for quite a long time. The struggle for Swells and Tommy Udo was to find backing. It eventually became pretty clear that Attack!wasn’t going to happen for a while, so I got in touch with Hayley Ann at Codex Books who I’d met when I put Billy Childish on at the ICA a couple of years before. I think that Codex now have an amazing list — I don’t like all the titles, but there’s no better introduction to what is most interesting in British fiction today. This was when they were just starting out, but I had a real sense that this was who I wanted to publish Charlieunclenorfolktango. I think Codex is a really good place for it — more appropriate than Attack! would have been, in a way. So I couldn’t have been happier when they bought it. Also, Hayley and Peter Pavement who does their design and typography really did a fantastic job. It was a nightmare to edit as you can imagine. It was absolutely mental, but totally worth all the work.
3:AM: And Satan! Satan! Satan! came out around the same time?
TW: Well, while we were editing Charlieunclenorfolktango, Swells finally got money for Attack! And he really wanted me to be part of the list, so I wrote Satan! Satan! Satan! for them in about a week, applying those rules that I’d used to write Road Rage to this one. You know, doing no research, writing fast and so on. This wasn’t great timing — I don’t think I’d want two books to come out so close together again, both of them can be compromised by that, and probably were — people don’t know which one to cover. But, I guess in the best pulp tradition, I was absolutely broke, and writing Satan! Satan! Satan! paid my rent for a month… It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
3:AM: So where did the Jim Jones idea come from?
TW: I had the transcript of the Jim Jones suicide speech.
3:AM: As you do.
TW: As you do! It was a xeroxed copy of a transcript that was circulating a few years ago, which someone had somehow put together — The Sunday Times Magazine had published parts of it — lots of typos in it; spelling mistakes and so on. I thought this was an interesting artefact, and I’ve always been surprised that it’s not really available in its own right, except on that record which Psychic TV brought out in the mid-eighties. I hadn’t set out to write a book with that in it, but bearing in mind that the rest of the stuff was just general knowledge — the odd bit of occult stuff, Austin Osman Spare and that, the record business, tattoos to keep the lifers happy! — and then two chapters from the end I didn’t know what to do and had no easy way of ending the story. So I thought if I appropriated the whole of Jim Jones’s speech and just dropped it in, in its entirety, at the end that gets my wordage done and also it’s put that text out there. Much as I wasn’t planning on using it, it had already been informing what was happening in the story, and it had a kind of narrative logic in the event. It made perfect sense. This isn’t just like ‘only connect’ or anything, but one thing I learned from the performance art I used to do — where all kinds of disparate textual and visual material was brought together fairly arbitrarily — was that narrative is an unpredictable and emergent thing which is actively produced by the reader as much as the writer. It can be an unconscious thing — creating, or seeing, a narrative is almost a reflex, a facility like seeing in 3D. So you can drop a found text like that Jones Town speech into a novel structure and this narrative which you never knew was there jumps out and hits you in the face like the hidden characters in a colour-blindness test. So I delivered that, and luckily Swells liked it — mind you, he didn’t have much choice because he’d already paid for it, and it was due to go to press!
3:AM: What is the publishing world like at the moment?
TW: God, well you tell me. Maybe you’ve caught me at a pessimistic moment, but the largest part of it is pretty fucked up isn’t it? I mean, why do they bother bringing some of that shit out? But here and there are interesting things going on. Circumstances where someone with a bit of vision is tolerated for a bit. And I think, actually, that there’s a lot more interesting work being published at the moment in the UK than there has been for years. But maybe I would say that. There is a kind of in-built conservatism, certainly in the bigger publishing houses. Decisions are made by marketing departments, and those can only be based on past successes, so that produces a resistance to innovation, certainly. Though it’s such a complex process, so many variables, it’s a wonder that any books get sold — so many things have to be on your side all the way down the line. But there are people and imprints that somehow get interesting stuff out there in spite of all that, and I don’t think that every reader just wants the latest publishing fad, or the latest book by some TV personality. People are looking for more than that. I hope they are anyway.
Publishing is a kind of collaborative process, and not just between writers and editors, it goes right down the line through the reps and the booksellers and the readers, and I don’t think it ever happens easily or naturally, it’s something that everyone contributes to, works at. Publishing houses aren’t monoliths, much as they may like to give that impression. There are genuinely creative, passionate people in there somewhere, though finding them is sometimes a challenge! But publishing is like any kind of commissioning relationship, you have dialogues and occasionally the results of those dialogues find a home. It all seems fairly contingent, random, at times. I’m not saying that meaning to sound depressing, it’s just acknowledging that a lot of people play a part in it.
3:AM: You’re part of this process now aren’t you, working as you do for the Arts Council?
TW: You’re part of the process, being a writer, too, but I know what you mean yes, and with The Idler as well. But it’s not quite the poacher-turned-gamekeeper scenario with me. Unless you can write like Ken Follett then you don’t make a living out of writing. I’ve always had to have a job. I don’t have a private income. I used to work for the Post Office, but now I work part-time in a research unit at the Arts Council of England. The job came about partly because back in the early nineties I was running a performance art programme at a gallery called The Showroom in London, this was while I was also working for the Post Office. I did that for a few years, putting on events every now and then in the down-time between exhibitions, colonising that week of empty space. When I stopped doing that — largely because it was taking up time that I wanted to use to write — I started editing and publishing an occasional series of samizdat publications, under the imprint Piece of Paper Press. These were ultra-cheaply produced, photocopied A7 booklets, that I’d invite people to do. Writers, artists, whatever. I really like having a commissioning space. Somewhere to put those conversations and ideas. These books were never for sale, they were just distributed free. It was more about circulating ideas, and creating networks, than about the business of publishing. Completely worthwhile, you know. So it’s not something I’ve just started doing: I think even though I was too young to be a proper punk, one thing that I got out of that moment was the idea that you can just make things happen. And you can do it with whatever you have to hand — a photocopier or whatever — just get the stuff out there to the people you want to get it to. So the work at the Arts Council is a result of that kind of activity, which I feel like I’ve been doing alongside my own creative work for most of my adult life, but what I’m doing there is more about talking to people to find ways of supporting innovative work, than actively commissioning things. It’s a bit more interesting than the Post Office! But that work with Piece of Paper Press feeds directly into some of the Arts Council work. So one of the most interesting things I’ve done as an Arts Council gig was to publish a series of books around shared ownership, anti-copyright and the open source, free-software movements. This came out of a conference called CODE, which happened back in April 2001, and there’s a link here with what Stewart Home’s been doing since the days of Karen Eliot and Smile. He’s an absolute legend to those international anti-copyright communities. That side of his work is not acknowledged as being very important in Britain but for all the people like the ‘Copyleft’ movement in France and the free software communities, Stewart is a key historical text for them. He was doing this stuff in the late eighties. Anyway, as part of this conference, I commissioned a series of essays, including one by Stewart Home, another one by Steve Beard — another fantastic writer — and these things are polemical essays, I guess, which take up some of those dissenting ideas, and they’re published in this new e-book format which is a totally low-tech, clockwork radio-type of e-book designed by Giles Lane and Paul Farrington. You don’t need some expensive hand-held device, you just print them out on A4 paper, slot the pages together and you’ve got a book. The idea that you can just do a pamphlet that can be downloaded by anyone is great. And it’s really good to be doing this seriously experimental and critically rigorous publishing activity in the name of the Arts Council, which in a way is the last place you’d expect to find it. I don’t know if you’ve seen Steve Beard’s Anthropofferjist Manifesto? To my mind it’s the first piece of really critically engaged writing that even begins to approach what a whole load of writers are doing at the moment. Certainly I recognise what I’m doing in that manifesto. Anyway for his CODE e-book, Steve Beard used some of the techniques from his Anthropofferjist Manifesto to remix some pieces of out-of-copyright Charles Dickens journalism about Whitechapel and create a new piece of fiction; a ghost story. Beautiful, it’s beautiful. You can download them from Mute magazine’s website.
3:AM: What about the link between performance and writing?
TW: Well if you appropriate some of the critical framework that gets applied to performance art or conceptual art, you get the idea of the act of writing as a time-limited process, as a performance in itself, and the results of that being a document of the process as much as anything else. There are people who are explicitly writing in that way in the art world — the artist Fiona Banner comes to mind. I can kind of relate to that too, it’s part of that experimental trajectory in the 20th century, from the Surrealists to Burroughs and beyond. It’s also only a slight shift to see that as part of how you can end a book, and move on to the next one, accepting that there may be things you’d do differently next time, and acknowledging the importance of that process you’ve just undertaken, at that particular time.
But if you mean in my own work, as far as the readings go, and the connection between those and the ‘performances’ I used to do, I mean it’s fair to say that I never really saw myself as a ‘performance artist’. It just happened that this was a place where the writing I was doing in the eighties was able to exist. I think there is something that happened in the nineties where readings became interesting, became places where interesting things would happen. For me, part of what was interesting about that readings scene was meeting other writers – kind of making contact with my peer group.) And as I said, readings can be an important part of my working process. But there’s a difference between being a writer who’s reading something out loud — even if you can maybe do it OK, and quite enjoy it — and being a ‘performer’ of some kind. I think this is something to do with the privileged position that the printed word, that books, have in our culture, right or wrong. As a writer reading from a book, there is this act of deferral implicit in that.
3:AM: What are you working on at the moment. Anything coming out in the near future?
TW: I’ve just finished a new book but I don’t think it’ll be in the shops until, I don’t know, spring 2003? So maybe I’ll talk to you about that sometime next year, but I’ll tell you that it’s called Foxy-Tomislav and it’s set in Whitechapel. I’ve got a short story coming out this week called “Stormbringer”, which is published in a book called London Fieldworks: Syzygy/Polaria which is published by Black Dog Books (and is £12.95, I think). I was invited (along with a number of other people, the composer Kaffe Matthews, and another three writers) to take part in a residency in the Southern Hebrides, on an uninhabited island called Sanda, a couple of miles off the southernmost tip of the Mull of Kintyre. Everyone there was involved in a kind of interdisciplinary art project organised by these two artists, Bruce Gilchrist and Joe Joelson. Oh and the former world champion stunt kite flying team were there too. My part in this project was just to write a piece of fiction. As we went over on the boat, I found out that a previous laird of the Island had been Jack Bruce from Cream. I’d been trying to find a visionary voice with which to write about this island, so the idea of a first-generation British R & B musician in self imposed exile in the seventies on this you know shipping hazard at the gateway to the Atlantic — there was a story there. It was a great project. It’s a good book actually. Explains the whole project better than I just have.
3:AM: Another area of work you do is for The Idler. You’re their literary editor.
TW: It’s an honorary post really. Tom (Hodgkinson, Idler editor) was a fan of Road Rage! and at a certain point about three years ago I became literary editor. I’d been editing the reviews section of an art magazine, which was fine, but being lit ed is better — people send you books! I see it more as a place for commissioning new stuff, than as a vehicle for my own writing though I try and do at least one piece in every issue. You know, writers are always talking about books, and it’s great to be able to offer people a few hundred words, or more, and a bit of money, to take those ideas further, and to bring them to a wider audience.
3:AM: How would you describe The Idler these days?
TW: You can’t really pin it down. I think people have an idea of what it’s about, but they might be surprised. I see it as something like a counter-culture Readers Digest, as the content is really diverse and quite eclectic — and we have about 400 pages per issue, I mean there’s a lot in it: culture, politics, new fiction, substantial essays, comedy… A good mix. Where else will you find Bill Oddie talking about his depression, or Alex James interviewing Patrick Moore, alongside new fiction, and then something like, you know, reportage from Victor Headley in Africa. I think the coverage of books in this country is so shit generally it’s really hard to find informed criticism of books that isn’t just driven by 4 or 5 publishers’ press releases. There have always been guerrilla outposts where you can go to find a more informed coverage, like when Steve Beard and Kodwo Eshun co-edited the books pages of i-D Magazine, i-D Magazine was a good place to go. I kind of hope that The Idler is like that: a really good place to go where you know you’re not going to just see the same old shit that everyone else is covering. So I jumped at the chance to be unpaid literary editor at a magazine that comes out twice a year! I think if it were any more frequent it might seem like a job, but as it is, it’s fun.
3:AM: What are you into at the moment, books-wise? Any favourites?
TW: I read all the time, so it’s difficult to say who are my favourites. I think the book I’ve most enjoyed in the past year was Perfect Tense by Michael Bracewell, that was an astonishing book. At the moment I’m reading Steve Aylett’s new one, Only An Alligator, and I’m just about to start on China Mieville’s latest, The Scar. The best book I’ve re-read this year is Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her vast book about the former Yugoslavia, which was reissued by Cannongate. Fucking incredible. I first read it about ten years ago, at the beginning of the war. But back in October I went over to Belgrade to do some readings as part of a festival called FAK-Yu! which was a really momentous occasion over there. Writers from all across the former Yugoslavia all reading together in public in one place: this hadn’t happened in Belgrade since before the war. I was the only English writer there, and the first English writer to read there since before the war, I was told. It completely blew me away: Belgrade is an incredible city. Anyway, when I got back I still hadn’t had enough of the place, so I thought I’d better read West again. That’s a phenomenal book — along with Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andric, it’s the best possible introduction to the complexities of Yugoslavia.
3:AM: And there’s also stuff you did with the New Puritans.
TW: All Hail the New Puritans! I wondered when you were going to ask me about that. I knew Nicholas Blincoe through the Britpulp! anthology, and I think he and Matt recognised the kind of experimentation I was applying in books like Road Rage! and Charlieuncle. I had a call from Nicholas saying they’d written a manifesto, and did I want to read it and then write something? When he faxed me through the rules, I didn’t see it as a manifesto. Calling it that was slightly misleading for me. But I was prepared to accept these ten statements as the rules of a game that I might be interested in playing — at least for long enough to write one story. I’d written Road Rage! to a set of rules and enjoyed that crossover, as I saw it, between surrealist automatic writing and the pulp methodology (which I think is an important comparison), via those OuLiPo rules-based experiments, especially through people like Perec. I saw the New Puritan project as something that might occupy that kind of space. Certainly I was interested enough to play the game. As I started to write it though, I began to realise that even in something masquerading as a simple piece of fiction like Road Rage! I’d actually been relying on everything that was being rejected by the New Puritan Manifesto. These were the kinds of devices I relied on quite heavily, because I do think you use whatever you can to write a novel. So it was more of a challenging proposition than I thought it would be and more interesting and enjoyable because of that. I started writing a story called “Poet”, and it seemed that the only way I could play the game was to satirise it. I did a story called “Poet” which is a first person narrative about a poet who creates, in effect, a machine for writing sonnets and decides that he’s going to write a sonnet a day for his wife, but in fact the machine just generates fantasies of literary self-aggrandisement.
I think it’s a really good collection. You can ignore the rules. You can just read the stories. It just reads like what it is: a really good collection of short stories. The book’s done really well. We all got slagged off by lots of people. People like Nicholas Royle jumped at the chance to dig their boot in. But who gives a shit — it was what we expected, and a bad review is as good as a good one. Some of the writers in there are more well known than others. I was in the less well known camp, so the idea that I could be pretty well-paid for writing a story, which was pretty much guaranteed to get huge exposure, and might even, in turn, lead one or two people onto my other stuff… This was too good an opportunity to miss.
3:AM: Stewart Home’s big in Finland. Is there anywhere you’re big in?
TW: Not quite to that extent. But stuff is slowly starting to appear in translation. This underground publisher in Moscow called Tough Press are publishing Road Rage! and Satan! Satan! Satan! as a single back-to-back volume later this year. The other interesting audience for my work has been in Yugoslavia through the New Puritans coming out in Serbo-Croat; the whole thing in Belgrade and in Croatia that I just mentioned. I definitely want to go back as soon as possible. Oh and Satan! Satan! Satan! has just come out in Spanish.
3:AM: Are you arguing through these books against the things you don’t like?
TW: Yes and no. I am in a way. I mean a novel like Charlieunclenorfolktango is explicitly political, of course. And as I was saying earlier, the way it’s written is a political act, and just publishing it is too, but it’s not necessarily part of a long-term political project, it wasn’t written to service a particular point. The book got criticised by some joker (in the London Review of Books) for not ‘addressing the issues’ raised by the MacPherson Report — I mean, how ridiculous can you get: I thought those issues were things to be addressed by the Metropolitan Police for fuck’s sake, not a novelist. And I hate that kind of heavily didactic Shavian thing where the characters articulate his arguments in their dialogue. Christ! I can’t think of anything more tedious. I think the way I write is a bit too intuitive and speculative for that, and I genuinely love the surprise of writing a novel, the ‘making it up as you go along’ stuff; writing more than you know. Research is what happens when you’re writing not before. When I’m coming to the end of a novel that I’m writing I can’t wait to see what happens! As an editor I find it more useful to concentrate on the things I do like than those I don’t like; pursuing what I am interested in, and being open to argument. And also to devote energy to being slightly more positive towards what I think needs to be covered. It’s certainly true that there are a lot of voices that are excluded from the mainstream and I think it’s more productive to try and find ways of hearing those voices than to waste time and precious commissioning space slagging off the same old faces. I like slagging people off as much as the next man, but I guess I don’t have very much time, so I’d rather do something positive. Certainly I think there is a kind of direct action that is possible in publishing from time to time, and you have to use any means necessary to smuggle stuff in. I think an anthology like Brit Pulp! is a good example of that because it was a bit of a Trojan horse really. The conditions were right so that that could get through the defences. I mean we all say that mainstream publishing is in a terrible state, but that’s only a measure of the wider picture: there’s nothing special about publishing that says it shouldn’t be in a terrible state — I mean, who cares about publishing except for writers anyway. Writing is not about creating communities — one writer can’t do that — but I do think that you can participate in a wider dialogue, and that by having a book published you can contribute to communities of dissent. I think it is a useful thing to do.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 12th, 2002.