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Bach To Reality: Steven Hall

Sean Merrigan interviews “next big thing” Steven Hall for 3:AM.

3:AM: The Raw Shark Texts is only just published but the response in the trade and media has been very enthusiastic. What’s your reaction to this?

SH: When you write a book you have to trust your own sense of what’s interesting, engaging, exciting. Even if you feel you’ve done something really well, there’s no guarantee that it’ll work for anyone else. The fact that lots of early readers seem to genuinely love the book is so rewarding for me. I’ve been getting lots of emails from booksellers who’ve read advance copies and want to do that little bit extra to help promote and sell Raw Shark, which is really great. Of course, if lots of people are going around saying they love something — and then there’s all this trumpeting about Nicole Kidman and international sales — then you risk a backlash. There have been a few rumblings in that direction. One or two of the English broadsheets have been a little cold, but then there have also been great reviews in magazines from the Big Issue to Vogue. The Scotsman wrote “Steven Hall’s brilliance aspires to Bach” the other day. Bach? How the hell do I get a grip on that? It’s all just very, very strange. To be completely honest, I’m just glad the book is on the shelves now so people can read it.

3:AM: When did you start writing, and when did you decide this could be a vocation?

SH: I was always drawing or writing as a kid. As I got older I moved more towards art, and then I found my way back.

3:AM: Describe your daily writing behaviours — are you a 12-hour, green tea-fuelled writing machine like David Mitchell, or do you potter and stare out of windows before bashing out a sentence?

SH: I admit it, I potter. Actually, I find I have to take a long time just walking around with an idea in my head, thinking about it, developing it, fleshing it out. If I start trying to write too soon then the whole thing feels a little half-baked and I can’t really invest in it.

3:AM: You acknowledge several ‘big names’ at the start of TRST — Mitchell, Toby Litt, Ali Smith — how have other writers influenced your career so far? Was New Writing 13 a big part of this?

SH: David Mitchell is such a nice guy. He gave me some wonderful notes on the first draft of Raw Shark, in particular some really smart structural suggestions.

I first met Toby Litt in 2003 and he’s been, well, I guess you could almost say a mentor. He’s always been brilliant and generous with his time and advice.

Bizarrely, I think only one reviewer mentioned my contribution to New Writing 13 at the time. I think it’s something that has become quite relevant now Raw Shark exists but at the time no one noticed it!

3:AM: Journalists — especially literary ones — like to create genres, and the term ‘fright fic’ has been applied to The Raw Shark Texts. Was the ‘rehabilitation of horror fiction’ ever really on your agenda?

SH: Horror is one of the things I’m interested in, but I’m interested in all sorts of stuff. I wanted to try to write a real and moving love story which was also an adventure thriller with a gigantic shark, and I wanted to write about the nature of memory, identity and language. There are lots of things different things in the book. I wanted to try taking ideas and themes and approaches which aren’t traditionally seen together and look for a way to make them all work together as one novel.

3:AM: Are you a fan of the horror genre? Or has a previous infatuation with the type influenced your work now?

SH: I was a big fan as a child. At 10, my favourite book was Stephen King’s It. Later In my teens I moved on the HP Lovecraft. Mr Nobody is very HP Lovecraft, I think.

3:AM: There is a sense, though — and you’ve talked about this elsewhere — that after absorbing the work of Mark Z. Danielewski (House of Leaves) and Haruki Murakami (Wind Up Bird Chronicle), the new generation of writers feels less inclined to stick to ‘gritty realism’. Why do you think this is the case?

SH: Maybe it’s because we’re learning that there are ways to explore human drama without sticking to the kitchen sink.

3:AM: Jonathan Lethem — in reference to the work of Kafka and Beckett — identifies amnesia as a central condition of the fictional character. How far would you agree that Eric’s condition is a playful analysis of identity in fiction? Or is this overreading it? Was it really about just getting on with the plot? Or even a convenient exercise in fiction writing, building up a character?

SH: Maybe it’s an analysis of identity generally, because you can argue that our identities are really group-written stories, processed events reflected back at us by the people around us. I was interested in the idea that, without a Clio to reflect and make him, there wasn’t really an Eric. Or, at least, there couldn’t be the same Eric. A good portion of who he was came from her.

3:AM: Eric, we discover, is being pursued by a metaphysical predator, one that operates on the level of meaning itself: A Ludovician — a conceptual shark. Firstly, what was the genesis of this idea? Secondly, once you’d thought of it, were you daunted about realising it in narrative?

SH: I was thinking about all the water terminology which seems to appear when we talk about thought or language — stream of consciousness, flow of conversation, depth of the unconscious. I found myself thinking — if these types of streams and flows and depths were inhabited, what would live in them? The Ludovician shark pretty much evolved from there.

I was daunted at first, but I spent a lot of time thinking the conceptual fish through, working out just what we needed to see and feel to make it work on the page. By the time I came to write the Ludovician’s first scene the idea didn’t even seem strange to me anymore. It was something I’d lived with for a while and something I found myself being able to believe in wholeheartedly as I wrote. Without that belief it would never have worked, I don’t think.

3:AM: On this note, I found it intriguing that there’s something very ‘gettable’ about the Ludovician idea (even though its existence and anatomy are dealt with remarkably briefly)’ as there is about the ever-expanding consciousness of Mycroft Ward. Are we, as ‘e-generation’ readers, more susceptible to these ideas, do you think? Do you feel TRST is in this respect a product of its time?

SH: Yeah, I think you might be on to something — there are so many forms of communication available to us now that we’ve probably learned to slip more easily from one way of looking to another.

3:AM: Jorge Luis Borges: questioned the ultimate originality of fictional works –- TRST contains references to Zen teachings, Paul Auster, a Borgesian labyrinth of documents — are these intertextual (sorry) elements of the book there for purely functional purposes, or do you enjoy being able to play around with philosophical ideas in your work?

SH: Well, they were fun but they’re functional too — every one of them has roles to play in the different readings of the story. The fact that Eric’s world is made from Chinese-whispered half-recognisable cultural flotsam and jetsam is an important element of the plot.

But I also feel we live in a world full of conflicting, colliding stories and information, much more so than at any other time in history. A writer shouldn’t be afraid to reflect the world. My brain is full of all this stuff — noise, news and cultural information, I’m sure everyone’s brains are to a greater or lesser degree. It seems kind of old-fashioned to try to keep a story ‘pure’. It’s much more fun, and much more interesting to embrace it all and go from there.

There are quite a few philosophical, scientific and I guess mystical ideas in the book — Zen and Superstring Theory are both pretty interesting to me and both are very much at work behind the scenes in Shark (string theory is harder to spot in there, but there’s a reading waiting!).

3:AM: At the same time as being ambitious in terms of ideas, TRST is also a love story and a thriller — how important was it, and how difficult, to balance these elements?

SH: Very important. I really wanted Raw Shark to work in all of these different ways. My ultimate aim was to try to create a book that anyone could pick up and find their idea of an engaging read, whatever that might be. A big task and I have no idea to what degree I managed it.

3:AM: You’ve done a lot of your own publicity — particularly online in social networks such as MySpace, and via your own website. How have these new media outlets improved the way authors can reach their audiences? Or do they just take up time with little result?

SH: They’re hugely important. I met a Vice-President of Barns & Noble on Myspace last year, completely by accident. I’ve met some really great writers too — Mark Z Danielewski is another MySpace friend who’s been doing lots to spread the word on Raw Shark.

3:AM: What’s your next writing project?

SH: I’ve just started another novel. It’s kind of the anti-shark thematically, the two were always designed to be sort of mirror versions of each-other. It’s early days and I shouldn’t say too much more yet.

3:AM: Is it true that you refused a request from Nicole Kidman to change the sex of the protagonist of the book so she can play it?

SH: The request didn’t come directly from Nicole Kidman, but a suggestion along those lines was made by the consortium she was working with to buy Raw Shark for New Line cinema. I’ve always seen Raw Shark as a character-driven love story at heart, and the things Eric does, the way he sees the world — his dilemma is very male, I think. Film4 seemed to see the book in a similar light so we sold the option to them in the end.

3:AM: How is the status of the film, and how much involvement will you have in its production?

SH: There have been some exciting developments with the film, but I can’t talk about them yet! It’s very frustrating not to be able to say too much.

I’m going to be mostly hands-off on the project and I’m happy with that. I make sure I’m available when people want to chat through ideas or ask why something is the way it is in the book, but other than that I trust the folks who are producing, they have such a great grasp of the novel. They offered to let me write the screenplay, but I think there’s a risk for a writer of getting too involved in something you ultimately can’t control. For now, I’m just looking forward to getting lost in writing the next book.

Steven Hall was born in Derbyshire in 1975. He studied Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University. His ‘Stories for a Phone Book’ appeared in New Writing 13 (Picador 2005) and ‘Not Jesus Yet’ first appeared at 3:AM and was included in The Edgier Waters: Five Years of 3:AM (Snowbooks 2006). The Raw Shark Texts is his first novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 27th, 2007.