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Momentary Players in an Infinite Narrative: An Interview with Roger Frederick

roger-frederick.jpgInterview by Sophie Erskine.

3:AM: My first question is about your book, Of Lemonade Lizards and Other Brief Trips into Post Punk Fiction. What is Post Punk Fiction, and why are you so interested in it?

RF: For me, post-punk fiction is the literary equivalent of the ‘Indie’ music that appeared in the UK and late 1970s and early 1980s. It shares the same ethos and attitude as bands such as Joy Division and the Dead Kennedys and the others that followed. Before the advent of punk, music was very predictable and genre-based, and didn’t reflect the lifestyles, opinions or emotions of millions of disaffected youths tumbling out of their comprehensives into the jobless, culturally bereft wasteland of Thatcher’s Britain. British publishing has never seen this revolution. There is no high-profile publishing counter-culture. There has never been a literary equivalent of the John Peel show – a central place where you can showcase your angst-ridden short stories or set-flight your fledgling novels.

A few book retailers have created sections within their stores for independent publishers. Unfortunately, the percentages that larger retailers and wholesalers take, coupled with cut-price selling of bestsellers by supermarkets and the domination of the 2 for 3 tables at the front of bookstores, make traditional retail a waste of time for small presses.

Fortunately, the web, social networking sites (not to mention wonderful online magazines such as 3:AM), combined with digital print on demand, PayPal, and the like, mean that aspiring authors and publishers can now at least produce, promote and sell their work outside the constraints of traditional book retailers.

The large multinational media conglomerates may dismiss self-publishing as not being proper publishing like what they do [sic]. And, it’s true, the market for indie fiction is small and fragmented. But I would always rather read a rough-edged novel by some aspiring young author with a cover created on a kitchen table rather than some ghost-written pile of shit, printed in China and sold in Tesco like tins of spam.

That’s why I’ve stayed interested all these years! It’s about expressing, experiences, ideas and emotions through words; not acquiring this or that literary prize or shifting x-thousand units.

3:AM: I’ve noticed that your books often involve unconventional encounters: in Shorts and Dresses, between two journalists and the widow of a man impaled on screwdrivers; in Of Lemonade Lizards, between a veteran porn star, a telepathic cat and a hippy gardener; in The Shrewdness of Apes, between Newton Driftwood and his beloved Sophie. Are such encounters an integral part of your fiction? If so, is this because they are a necessary part of (a good) life?

RF: Absolutely. I’ve always been attracted to people on the margins of life (those at each end of the bell-shaped curve) as they are just far more interesting. Seemingly, society is made up of  homogenous groups of  people – stereotypes (flamboyant gay designer, sulky council estate gang member in the stairwell of a tower block, merchant banker in a gated community, stay-at-home mum or dad picking up the kids from school, etc., etc.). We all share the same roads and towns (and planet), but often seem to be living in parallel universes – mixing with our own kind. What interests me is when those tracks deviate and cross and lives collide. People then find they often have a human affinity for each other. It’s no great revelation. It’s all really just a variation on the theme of the prince and the pauper or the film Trading Places.

In my latest novel a single urban saleswoman with a designer wardrobe and a go-go-go, deal-chasing lifestyle suddenly finds herself disfigured, friendless and living in a tiny and run-down Welsh seaside village. She is still the same person, but has to morph into a new lifestyle and environment. She finds that everything she thought was important is actually completely unimportant. As ever, it’s a rather bleak story dealing with rather fucked up people, but there’s a message in there for us all…

3:AM: On your website, below the blurb for ‘Fishing For Angels’, you state explicitly: ‘this is not a religious book…’ Is religion something you’ve deliberately avoided or rejected? If so, why? Assume I’m open-minded.

RF: Organised religion is irrelevant when you have a basic grasp of the space-time continuum, quantum theory and the simple probability that underpins the concept of natural selection, and when you have the independence of mind to decide what you believe is wrong and right. For people who struggle with these concepts and like to be dictated to (the sheep who graze in the middle of that bell-shaped curve), religion provides structure and meaning to their lives. It’s an illusion. When you include the words ‘fishing’ and ‘angels’ in the title of a book, some may assume it is by a religious publisher and may end up being offended. I’m not out to needlessly upset people and have no inclination to argue about other people’s perceptions of existence. None of it makes any difference. We’re all just momentary players in an infinite narrative. I just enjoy writing. It makes me feel good. I imagine religion, drugs, cruelty, pain, sport, shopping, luxury chocolate products, etc., offer similar outlets to others. I don’t avoid or reject any of these things. The one thing I genuinely hate about some religions is the way that they subjugate women, denying them self-expression, education and the freedom to write. Unfortunately, those centuries-old cultures and practices are hard to escape. Most people are forced to live their lives a very specific way by circumstance, necessity and oppression. If you have a choice to do something different, you really should explore that.

3:AM: Tell me about Interstate Indie Fiction: what is it, and what were your motives for establishing it? Go all out, if you like.

RF: Very simple. I walk into a large branch of Waterstone’s (a converted chapel, possibly…) and see shelves and shelves containing thousands of books. I love books. They are the greatest things in the world. But among those thousands, nay, millions of titles there is nothing that fits my mind, my experiences, my feelings. So I have no choice but to write my own stories and search the internet for other likeminded souls…

3:AM: How successful have you been at banging the drum for Indie fiction? Have people listened (or have you just made a big hole in the drum from banging it too hard)?

RF: Actually, someone once used a similar analogy of a large rock blocking my path. ‘Roger’, they said, ‘you can kick that rock as long and hard as you wish, but it will never shift. All you will ever do is break your toes. Find yourself another route.’

I say, ‘you can never bang the drum too hard.’ It’s there waiting for a hole to be made in it! Yeah, I know that rock ain’t gonna move. But I’m gonna keep fucking kicking it anyway. That is the raison d’etre of the post-punk artiste.

God forbid (mild irony) that the rock ever moved. I wouldn’t know what to do next.

To answer your question from a commercial standpoint: prodigiously unsuccessful.

3:AM: How… shall we say… open to the world is Interstate Indie Fiction? Do you read submissions? Do you accept them?

RF: I’m always happy to receive submissions. However, Interstate Indie Fiction is a self-help author co-operative rather than a conventional publisher. That’s a smart-arse way of saying, ‘I’m always happy to offer advice on publishing routes and read other people’s work and add it to the website electronically and promote it through reading, etc.’ But I don’t have any spare cash to pay writer’s printing costs. That sounds a bit stingy, but conversely (and rather self-righteously) I have never charged anyone a penny for my time, either!

Seriously, though, independent authors should view their books primarily as a way of sharing their unique world-view and emotions, and secondly as demo-tapes or prototypes that they can flaunt to agents and larger publishers. No-one else has the distribution and marketing infrastructure to generate a profit (in fact, most of the big companies can’t make a profit any more, either; ha, ha, fucking ha – another illusion shattered). It’s good to be outside the system when the system collapses (I’ve waited thirty years to feel this smug, but it was worth it!).

Anyway, enough gloating already.

In 2009, in terms of maximising exposure, online blogs are maybe a better means of communication for aspiring writers. But it always gladdens my heart when I see fifty copies of some bound, bitter tome piled futilely on a trestle table at a fringe art event.

Keep kicking that rock until your feet fall off. That is the Roger Frederick way.

Consider this: if a million would-be-punk-rockers had never had the self-belief to send their home-recorded C90s to John Peel, we’d all be still listening to Disco Duck and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

So, keep writing. Keep creating websites to share your literary wares. Keep the post-punk literary revolution alive. And maybe, just maybe, one day we’ll have some decent books to read an’ all.

Sophie Erskine is part-time research assistant to the novelist Karen Essex. She is the media manager for the poetry group Perdika Press and is in the first stages of writing a film with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks and the theatre director Mick Gordon.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 27th, 2008.