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It Started with a Prick

By Scott Manley Hadley.

Intro: One Spring morning (in between the hot espressos, dog walks and prolonged panic attacks I tend to fill my days with), I received a DM asking me to interview Mazin Saleem, the author of a hot new book. I don’t have much going on at the moment, so I immediately agreed, provided the interview could be conducted over email. Thankfully, Saleem’s people allowed this, and here’s what happened.

3:AM: Hello, nice to eMeet you, Mazin Saleem. Have we met in real life? I don’t think so, but if we have and I’ve forgotten it then I’m not going to apologise, as one of the two reasons why I’ve been selected to interview you here is that I am — like the eponymous character of your delicious novelette, The Prick (Open Pen, 2019) — a prick. The other reason is that I too have a book published by Open Pen, Bad Boy Poet (Open Pen, 2018), and cross-promotion is the twenty-first century disease. Before we go any further, I’m going to kick off with possibly the most important question of this interview: Have you read my book? If no, why not? If yes, thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Mazin Saleem: Hey Scott. I did get my copy of Bad Boy Poet, to complete the set. The Open Pen team are big into The Illuminati, so the front covers of our books when taken together are like one of those visual crossword clues. (My favourite of your poems were ‘Clean your sheets…’ ‘I am a MAN…’, and ‘Every time…’, though really the whole thing has to be read as one. Folks, go buy and read it in one now!)

3:AM: Thank you. Hashtag blushing. With that out of the way, I suppose I should ask a question about you: Are you a prick? Is being a prick like being insane? e.g. If you think you are, you definitely aren’t?

MS: I don’t think so. I think if you’re anxious you’re one, then you’re probably not (but that doesn’t mean you’re not something else, or something worse). But a prick for definite could be cheerfully aware that they are one.

3:AM: Great, great, great. Would you be prepared to offer a quick definition of what you mean by prick, or do you prefer to leave that for the book?

MS: I think the New Testament got it right first time round. Someone(thing) that goads you.

3:AM: OK, right… Let’s test this: can you think of the best-behaved person who is too bad to be described as a prick? Obviously, mass murderers and war criminals are beyond being termed a prick, but is there a firm line between prickishness and something worse? Likewise, is there a hard line at the other end? What’s the worst repeated behaviour that someone can do without being, irrevocably, a prick?

MS: Yeah, it’d be a bit weird to be like, ‘That Harold Shipman — bit of a prick.’ The carceral state being bad notwithstanding, I suppose when someone could go to prison for something they did to someone else, they’ve probably crossed the upper line. I think most repeated behaviours you do without being aware of them as being that bad probably saves you from deserving the title. E.g., forever farting in public because you think you can get away with it is unprickish. Doing so like the character Roland because you love the smell of your own voice? You better believe that’s a paddling.

3:AM: I see. Or rather, I smell. [I pause for laughter. None is audible, because the interview is being conducted via email, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.] What made you want to write about pricks?

MS: Mainly because they / it might be funny. There’s comedy that comes from sympathetic, basically good characters having bad and embarrassing things happen to them, then there’s comedy that comes from bad characters behaving outrageously. Laughing at fictional versions of the latter is probably healthier in any case than raging at real-life examples you find out about on Twitter.

3:AM: OK. Can you suggest some real life pricks? And people who wander beyond?

MS: Here’s a useful heuristic. Christopher Hitchens, prick. But Richard Dawkins, arsehole. Ditto Piers Morgan versus, say, Kay Burley. Literary example: Hemingway versus Fitzgerald.

3:AM: Do you have any close friends who are pricks? Does everyone?

MS: Yes, all of them. But also none of them. It’s like Schrödinger.

3:AM: I’ll be honest, when reading The Prick I kept considering adding a pluralising “s” to the end of the title, because there’s a whole lorra people in these pages who I — a self-identifying prick — would consider a prick. Is this intentional on your part or just the result of my woefully unfashionable misanthropy?

MS: It’s intentional — they’re not a pretty bunch. One of the benefits, though, of the shorter book length is hopefully no one outstays their welcome. Had the book been 800 pages of people being awful to one another I’d have written A Little Life, zoink.

3:AM: Get those literary beefs happenin’!!! Hashtag hashtag!!! Now, let’s get statistical. Could you estimate the ratio of pricks to non-pricks that exist in the world? Please provide notes towards your reasoning. (((For example, I’d go 100:3, because I think almost everybody behaves badly when they can get away with it, unless they’re too timid. Being a prick is a sin of intention, not of act: like adultery (see Matthew 5:28).)))

MS: Most people aren’t bad. Maybe 1 out of 10 are actually bad. The rest are weak.

3:AM: Optimist. Did you feel any affection towards any of your characters as you wrote the novelette? Did you want to?

MS: Sure, for everyone a bit, inasmuch as I never wanted to bore myself, even with a minor character. And I had affection for Roland most of all. Characters who behave outrageously are good because they transfer their (in this case negative) energy to other characters: they’re the movers and shakers of the story, and should stand-out as vital, in both senses of the word.

I’d emphasise, though, that any affection is for the writing of them (and reading them back). The reason you can hang out with these people between book covers / in your head is because they’re made-up. As long as they’re made up well, they can be as shiver — or warmth-inducing as you like.

3:AM: OK, here’s the kinda question I’m probably supposed to ask: how did you find the novelette form to work with? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

MS: Strengths: Pocketability. +2 Agility. Weaknesses: Wouldn’t hurt someone if you threw it at them.

I don’t think any form or size has an insurmountable weakness. Sure, car chases are still probably best done in films than a novelette but, who knows, maybe the great fiction car-chase is out there waiting to be written.

3:AM: Is there any relationship between being a prick and being bald?

MS: Well, it’s Will who monitors Roland’s baby-baldness, himself being proudly top-knotted: you’ve gotta win your points where you can.

3:AM: What about between being a prick and openly discussing your bowel movements?

MS: Your mileage may vary, but I remember a lot of boys at school would take excessive pride in their farts and dumps. I suppose it’s an anal-fixation Freudian thing. Fart for fart’s sake.

3:AM: Nice. Right, quick fire, what do pricks:

Have as a pet?
Eat?
Use as a daily means of travel?
Retweet?
Get off on?
Think about your book?

MS:

None, while explaining to you that pet-human relationships are actually really sentimental.
To quote the book: “Meat”
Uber Lux or one of those ostentatiously loud motorbikes
Dunno, but they’d probably add ‘Well played sir.’
The quiver of panic in other people’s eyes
“Pass me that bad boy.”

3:AM: Lovely. Some real talk: If you were interviewing yourself, what questions would you ask? Don’t answer them, just give me the questions.

MS: “What’s the deal with Agatha?”. “Why did you write in the third person past tense?” “Did you fully make it so the story could only be told in the form you told it?” “Where do you get your ideas?”

3:AM: For me, the biggest prick in the book was Will, rather than Roland. Is this the intended response to the text? If not, do you feel it’s a legitimate reading of the story? Why/why not?

MS: I think it’s legitimate, for sure. There’s a point about halfway through where the story is meant to shift significantly. Stories should fuck with you.

3:AM: How would you class this novelette in terms of genre? Social satire? Psychological thriller? Contemporary fable? How do you think genre categorisations help writers? How do they hinder?

MS: Chapter by chapter the book sort of teases itself about what genre it is: a survival story in the Readers’ Digest vein, fairytale, sociological analysis, morality tale, satire, gossip, spiritual quest. This sort of tickboxing is a way of covering your ass maybe, but also it can be a healthy, playful form of writerly and readerly self-awareness. (And all probably relates back to irony: not only as a tone, but as the ontological status of fiction itself — to go back to our Schrödinger.)

Otherwise, genre is most healthily used outside of the mainstream, where the expected limits of a certain ‘type of story’, noir, historical fantasy, etc, force creative, clever solutions. Where they hinder you is as a marketing category, since, really, one fine day, all books will be stacked on the same shelf.

3:AM: OK, OK, that’s all I have time for. The book’s great, full of pricks, very funny, very tense, very now, very fresh. Order it.

Mazin Saleem is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the author of The Prick (Open Pen, 2019). He reviews books and films at Strange Horizons.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Scott Manley Hadley (@Scott_Hadley) is Satire Editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and the author of Bad Boy Poet (Open Pen, 2018) and My Father, From A Distance (Selcouth Station Press, 2019). He blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 4th, 2019.