AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVE AYLETT
"There's nothing being said by way of originality. So it's about working against the vacuum. Sometimes it's like lighting a match in a vacuum because it's immediately snuffed out. But that little spark is better than nothing. You've got to be open to it. I'm not talking about being open to 'the universe', I'm talking about me, I don't want to give any credit to the universe. You know you read these people who say - England produced this writer. I really hate that. No, I did it despite everything England chucked at me, and despite the fact that England was a fucking desert."
Richard Marshall interviews Steve Aylett
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
SA: My name's Steve Aylett. The writing has been characterised as being slightly weird surrealist satire and at the moment I'm at the end of writing a series of books for Orion, which are the Accomplice Books. I'm about to write the fourth one. The first one just came out, the Alligator one [Only an Alligator]. Prior to that, a couple of months ago, Shamanspace came out which was a bit different from the other things. It was a lot shorter for a start and it had hardly any jokes in it. In my stuff there are usually lots of jokes - people inflating their trousers and so on - and Shamanspace didn't have very much of that, so it was more difficult for people to ignore what I was talking about. A purely negative thing, very healthy. There are some people who think that if something's funny it's not serious, you know what I mean, so with Shamanspace I thought I'd do one without the gags. Well, there are still a few actually, but not so many.
3AM: You do satire and epigram.
SA: That epigram thing - I like it because it doesn't waste time. It can get stuff out of the way in a line that someone else would spend a whole book doing. But then if you fill up a whole book with epigrams in almost every sentence, then you've got thousands of books all concentrated in one book and if someone sits down and reads it in two hours it melts the brain, which is nice. It's compressed. Then people have a physical decompression thing afterwards, they come back to the real world, the world as they see it. I do it because I've had my time wasted by a lot of books that don't get to the point, that are talked up and don't deliver at all. They don't have one idea, never mind a lot, or if they have one idea it takes ages for it to get out. And even the scenery on the way isn't particularly interesting. And also in real life there'll be people talking but not saying very much, which is getting worse all the time. Mind you, those sorts of thing go in cycles. During the eighties it was a vacuum, in the late eighties/early nineties things got a little interesting, but we've gone back into another eighties now where there's very little going on. Well maybe there is, but it's in the corners, away from the spotlight, but on the whole it seems a very sterile time. Thinking original thought from the ground up is damn near illegal now. Filling a whole book with those thoughts is great. Of course, no one takes any notice because the spotlight is elsewhere. But it's interesting in dead times to do that - we're in the middle of a wasteland, but you can still get up to things because everyone is looking elsewhere. The important thing is not to let it waste your time. Don't let it stop you from producing things otherwise ten years down the line you'll look back and say "What the fuck was I doing? Why didn't I get on with things just, because I was expected to sit watching Changing Rooms or whatever is going on at the moment, which is nothing.
3AM: You want to replace Martin Amis?
SA: Well, I wouldn't want to be connected in any way with Martin Amis because he's one of the living dead. Reputation is something to think about after the work has been done, if at all. If it falls into a genre, that's for other people to think about. If you think about a genre before you start writing - well, that's ok in the case of, say, detective stories where you're deliberately using genre - but some of the stuff doesn't fit in with genre. The thing is, with satire people don't think about it as a genre or even understand what it is. People tend to think that sarcasm is satire but it's not. There's a whole mechanism involved. It's like putting a whole something inside of something else. It's like if someone presents an argument to you - well, I don't see things in words, I see things in shapes, so I can usually see the shape of the argument and so I can see the hole in it. So what you can do is take someone's argument, you can mess with it, or weaken it just at the point where it will break, you can almost make a bomb. By just changing one word in it or increasing one emphasis, push the flaw in it, and giving it back to them, they'll go away and literally, three days later it will go off. It'll trigger. It's like giving a virus to someone, coated in their own protein so their body accepts it. Coated in what their body accepts, their own unstable argument. So when the coating is digested away the virus is released. It's similar to that. But it's only triggered by hypocrisy. That's what satire's about. Placing a bomb inside of someone. And then it unpacks inside them. A bomb's a better picture actually. You put it inside them and then it goes off. It unpacks and ruptures them. But the thing is, that only happens if they're honest to some extent. They have to be able to acknowledge it. If they're totally hypocritical then it doesn't happen. So it's not a perfect weapon. If there's nothing in them that is even faintly interested in the truth, then it won't happen. You rely on that little speck of humanity for it to work. If they're a total monster they'll just digest it completely and flush it out.
3AM: So you see writing as a weapon?
SA: Well, there's part of that, the satire. Although it has no real effect on anything structurally in actual life. There was a thing in something I wrote that went 'The great thing about being ignored is that you can speak the truth with impunity.' I really think you change the outside world more by painting a fence than by writing satire, but I still think the truth has inherent value, even if nobody hears it. The other thing in my writing is the basic originality aspect, just the antidote to the total vacuum. The very fact that you're offering something that isn't a vacuum is satirical in a way, it provides a contrast. But that's only a side effect. I honestly just feel that I'm existing in a vacuum, being given almost nothing from the outside, and the only ideas that I get to see - there are a few but they're very difficult to track down, once you've read a few thousand books and so on. Recently I stumbled across Celia Green. She's a scientist, was a child prodigy, and she's strenuously ignored. She wrote this thing called the Human Evasion about the way human beings evade reality at all costs, going through life desperately ignoring the fact that we are just specks in the universe, for instance. She goes into it a lot better than that! I can't explain it.
3AM: This is what you like though, isn't it? Philosophical ideas. Like in Shamanspace the idea of God being found and we're going to get him!
SA: It's about resisting absorption. Whether you're talking about resisting absorption in society or resisting absorption into the God thing, you know, if we're part of God, it's like you can use one as a metaphor for the other. Have you ever seen those adverts, usually for banks and building societies, where you have an aerial view of a load of people walking across a field and they all come together to make some kind of shape. Or climbing onto each other's shoulders and building a house. That's my idea of Hell. Like, you're supposed to be one of those people and be happy being that, it's just terrible. And to actually use that to advertise something. I just hate it. To contribute to that. I think it's better to contribute as a different ingredient, rather than mimicking the ingredients that are already in there. That's a way of genuinely adding something. Why add more of the same?
3AM: So what's this Alligator book about?
SA: Basically, it's a bit more pastoral than the Beerlight stuff. There's this kind of innocent main character who gets involved with this devil character called Sweeney, which is a huge praying mantis thing. There are all these demons and stuff that live under this town called Accomplice. A lot of this stuff comes from dreams I had when I was really young. I had these dreams about a transit system underground that ghosts use to travel along. People just occasionally wander in there. You can never remember where the entrance is and you forget that the thing actually exists, in the same way as you'll forget a dream or a place in a dream. When you have the dream again you think - ah, I remember, this is the place I had those other dreams about. These things are similar to that. So people blunder into there occasionally. So this demonic character sends these demons up into the town to get at the main character, this Barny character who is an innocent simpleton. It just talks about what's more evil, human beings or this idea of demons that people have. What's more chaotic, and what gets to you. There's some nice little politics stuff. There's a mayor character, I always find mayors funny. The town, it's sort of like Trumpton. There was always the clock with mechanical figures coming out of it and the mayor and so there is a town clock and all that in my town. There are also these characters that come in David Lynch style, like in Lost Highway - white faced things coming through the wall and freaks like that. But it's funny. Difficult to explain. It starts off very light and knockabout but as you go into it you slow down and it becomes more difficult to stroll through. It starts getting like walking through syrup. You start realising that there's a lot of stuff happening, and you hadn't realised it at first. So the reading of it slows down. It gets creepier. I wanted the cover to be really really colourful and codified. Do you remember those Clive Barker books, like the first cover of The Great And Secret Show? I wanted the covers to be codified like that and each one slightly different with different characters and symbols round the frame. I didn't get that but I did get the map. There's a map.
3AM: You've got an observatory like in Tintin and Rupert Bear.
SA: I never really liked Tintin although I watched the TV shows in the late seventies when there was that announcer at the beginning who said 'Herge's adventures of Tintin'. I always thought he was saying 'dirty'. Dirty Adventures of Tintin. So I'd watch it thinking I was going to see something really dirty. And I'd think afterwards - there's nothing dirty going on here! It always felt really imminent that something dirty was going to happen, but it never did. So I thought maybe this was something only adults could understand, a code or something. Rupert Bear, I don't remember that. I liked the Clangers, they were great.
3AM: So what about the politics?
SA: I like to do these characters who are out to manipulate things. What I find funny are characters who are manipulative and just say it out loud and straight. I like to have characters that are very articulate. Even the morons in my books and people who are dying are very articulate about what's happening. They say it out loud, including all the manipulation going on behind it. So I like the authority characters when they're out there making speeches to the whole town saying 'I'm now going to spend all this money on something that is of no use to you, then I'll do this and this,' -it's stupid and very funny. I just like delineating this attitude. It's amazing that some people don't think about what's going on behind things. So it's nice to have it one hundred percent articulated. You think 'why do these characters stand for this manipulation' but then, we know that it's happening constantly in real life and why do we stand for it? The other good thing about being articulate is that it's possible to get into a position where I'll win an argument if I'm right, and get blown out of the water if I'm wrong, which happens a lot. But both are good because they're both about learning what's true and what isn't. If you lose an argument when you're right, or win an argument when you're wrong, the truth is lost.
3AM: Is there really nothing of interest going on culturally?
SA: If there are things going on, I don't know about them. They'll probably be dug up in years to come but the only people who know about it now are the people directly involved in it now. You know, it's like outsider art - people write books about it eighty or ninety years later. At the time though, most people couldn't see the worth of it. So there is probably something going on now that's interesting but I don't know what it is. And even when I do know people who are involved in these things I don't get involved. I lived in Bromley when the whole punk thing happened and I like to kid myself that if I had been older I would have got involved but if I look at myself honestly, if I had been ten years older I actually wouldn't have, because I don't get involved in anything. The same thing with acid house. I knew a lot of people who were there right at the beginning of that but I never really got involved. I never do. So actually I may know some of the people doing things now.
3AM: Yes, like the people over at The Idler.
SA: I think part of it is that I'm just not a very sociable person. In terms of this, punk and acid house were very social things. In terms of literary stuff, that's another matter.
3AM: So your books.
SA: You should see the blurbs they put out on these books, like the one they've put on the next one. It's like the write-up from the back of some Jerry Lewis video or something, all zany and wacky. That's the aspect that gets talked up. A wacky, crazy, zany guy. It's difficult to know who understands the stuff I do. Obviously I'm grateful that Orion put this stuff out. There was a bidding thing between Orion and Picador for my stuff and part of the reason I went with Orion was because they made a big deal about the advertising they would do, but they haven't done any. I'm not interested in it as far as me as a person is concerned - you know, I don't want people to point me out on the street and so on - but in terms of the books, I'd like more people to read them. That would be nice. But things just go by the wayside. I've got an American publisher - Four Walls Eight Windows - they first published Slaughtermatic. Over here nothing happened and so I sent it over to Four Walls in New York. They were the only publisher in America who I thought were any good. And so I sent Slaughtermatic to them and they published it before any of the English publishers. My third book. There's a big following over there but it's strange, there are different strands. For some reason there's a cult about Bigot Hall over there. This was my second book. It's a gothic parody of this bunch of English people living in this smashed up manor house, with moose heads on the wall salivating and speaking and strange things like that. Fungal spores growing into monks. And half the building is closed off because it's full of nuns in welding masks and no one goes in there because of these nuns doing all the welding. It's never actually been published in America, it's only been published over here. But I get fan mail from America from people who are really into Bigot Hall but not the other ones. And other people are only into the Beerlight stuff. I can never work out why people like certain books and not others. It's strange.
3AM: Where are all these ideas of yours coming from?
SA: I think it's like a hunger because there's nothing around. I apparently feel this stronger than other people because when I say this people look at me strangely. There's nothing being said by way of originality. So it's about working against the vacuum. Sometimes it's like lighting a match in a vacuum because it's immediately snuffed out. But that little spark is better than nothing. You've got to be open to it. I'm not talking about being open to 'the universe', I'm talking about me, I don't want to give any credit to the universe. You know you read these people who say - England produced this writer. I really hate that. No, I did it despite everything England chucked at me, and despite the fact that England was a fucking desert. As is everywhere else as far as I can tell, though I hope I'm wrong about that. I did it despite the English education system and all that stuff. Despite my growing up in the eighties, trying to sustain myself in that wasteland. The point is, people who don't have a fertile mind are usually people who have allowed things to be done to them before they realised it, allowed themselves to be closed down. Like, when I remember bits of advice I was given which I ignored when I was very young, I'm so glad that I had the sense when I was 5 or 13 or whatever age I was, to ignore this terrible advice. I would probably have killed myself or gone to university. I'd have gone to university and then killed myself. Anyway as for dreams, I don't take all my stuff from dreams but there is some dream stuff in this Alligator one. There are these things called floor lobsters. They're like big insects the size of lobsters and they live on the floor. They're physical side effects of people who are dishonest. So the Mayor's office is full of these things. He's tripping over them. These are really scary big insects, horrible things. Most of the churches are full of them. When I was young I used to have these dreams of being in this house with my family and there would be these huge insects wandering around and I'd be the only one who was concerned. No one else would be bothered. It's scary and extreme. A lot of it is to do with extremes. It's about living in the constant knowledge of absolute extremity all the time. Like in Shamanspace, this guy's day-to-day thing - whilst other people are going to the newsagent or buying eggs or whatever - he's working out 'shall I assassinate God this morning, have I got enough information for it?' It's more like the way I experience life. Actually for me it's a mixture of that and the buying eggs. You know, this morning I'll buy some eggs and this afternoon I'll assassinate God. But that idea is constantly overlayed on the thing. So I don't understand how so many people's lives can be so un-extreme. It's like when I was talking about the Celia Green thing. How do people live without being constantly aware of the amount of distance there is out there and how insignificant we are.
3AM: So are you sympathetic to organised religion - you know, people who do try and get that sense?
SA: Organised religion doesn't give people that sense. But I can understand people using whatever they can to be able to get to the end of the day. We all do that. But when people try and impose that on someone else it becomes an infringement. And the question that is left to gather dust in the basement is, are they right? Is the information accurate? And that whole question comes in, about whether you would rather be happy or right. What's the point of being happy if you're wrong? I don't think the two things are mutually exclusive in fact, but people don't reason it through all the way. The people who ask that question, are they happy? Then they're wrong, by their own reasoning. As for the afterlife, I'll feel so cheated if when I die I wake up into something else. You know, another load of crap to deal with. I just want it to be finished and no messing about. I believe in the whole thing about 'energy can't be destroyed' so it goes somewhere, but in terms of personality I don't believe that continues.
3AM: Isn't there a kind of hope that comes out of the mere fact that you're challenging the vacuum?
SA: I don't think we have the luxury to be humourless. In hell, what do you have? Only mischief, I think, or what these days is still called perversity. We can redirect the flames to make interesting shapes, or chop at them to almost make music. Mischief is very human, and it's a good way to survive this shite we're in the middle of. I like that - it's a particular form of energy. The mischief that points out that if you're applying this reasoning here, then you should also apply it over there. It's that kind of thing people find troublesome. The writing is really slow. People think I'm prolific but I'm actually slow. It takes ages to build something up.
3AM: What else can you tell us about Shamanspace?
SA: Codex Books are great, they put it out.
3AM: Good one!
SA: Get it for the kids.