:: Article

The Narrator Escapes to Japan: Interview with Dale Brett

By Mike Kleine.

Dale Brett frequently tweets about subjects I am passionate about (Blade Runner, vaporwave music, Japanese aesthetics, dead malls, neon lights, empty skies…). I guess, for me, what it comes down to is: it’s not too often I discover another writer who shares many of my same interests. So this interview, though its primary purpose, of course, is to promote Brett’s new book, Faceless in Nippon, is also partially a selfish thing. I’m always interested in the trajectory of a person who decides to become a writer. I want to know how it began and how they ultimately arrived to the point where they are. I want to hear about the ups and downs. I want everything. The indie publishing and writing scene has seen so many changes, over the years; trends die out and those who aren’t really in it for the craft disappear. But then you have the others, those who really are doing it because they can’t do anything else—they remain. I feel Brett is one of those if-I-can’t-do-this-I-don’t-know-what-I’ll-do types. And that’s very rare.

— Mike Kleine

 Full disclosure: The author of this article/interview provided a blurb for the aforementioned text.

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3:AM Magazine: In your book, Faceless in Nippon, the narrator escapes to Japan. You’ve revealed that you briefly sojourned in Japan. Is this a case of real-life blended into fiction? Are you the narrator?

Dale Brett: There is an element of that to this novel, for sure. Some of the most peculiar sections were indeed in some fashion ‘real.’ These were often tweaked or exaggerated to fit the narrative. Some of the more mundane sections were stuff assembled from basic every-day instances that never ‘occurred’ – purely fictitious if you will.

Given how instinctual this style of writing was for me and how these were the contents that just organically poured out of me when I turned my hand back to fiction after a decade long absence from the form, I’m inclined to believe that the voice is my own, so to speak. I would not necessarily say I am definitively the narrator, but certainly this could have been a version of me should I have chosen to stay in Japan, permanently feeding on a diet of late-night variety shows and fleeting, but occasionally ecstatic relationships, .

3:AM: Tell us about your background. I know you were heavy into journalism. But now, fiction—why? Take us through the transformation.

DB: I wouldn’t say I was ‘heavy’ into journalism, but I did major in Media and Communications and have had various pitiful paying temporary contractual arrangements with magazines that have probably closed up shop by now. I finished my degree in, like, 2010? I specialized in relatively hip shit like essays on surreal film and other definitely not hip shit like theses on neoliberalism and the media. I could have continued with a PhD but I chose to travel the world gaining employment via random travel magazines, Japanese restaurants and English teacher charades.

It’s interesting, because I did do a creative writing minor as part of the degree, but after I finished my formative schooling, I chose a path of artistic consumption opposed to production. For whatever reason, probably because too many drugs and drinks resulted in a lack of motivation, I just consumed weird literature, films, anime, music etc. It wasn’t until I met my wife in Japan and then returned to my native Australia to start a family that I considered ‘seriously’ writing my own fiction. To be specific, it was not until a few years after I returned to Australia when my mind started going a little internally warped due to this newfound responsibility of a family, a mortgage, a ‘proper’ job etc. That’s when the creative writing impulse really kicked in. Most likely because I no longer had the option of going on the three-day benders of my early adult days to emotionally deal with these newfound aspects of my life.

From the results of my own self-psychoanalysis, I believe the reason behind the “why and when” of my present fiction fixation was twofold. The first was the use of writing as an ‘outlet,’ an escape if you will, to help me deal with the completely foreign fall-out of being an adult responsible for other people’s livelihoods. Here I was, a guy who never even had a full-time job until twenty-eight and woah, damn, there’s a baby to look after. Plus, a wife to care for—someone from another country attempting to acclimate—and let’s just throw in the ultimate scam responsibility of the western world—a mortgage—for good fucking measure. It was eating me from the outside in, I had to locate a valve. I chose writing; it was far safer than taking up gambling though I was addicted to cryptocurrency trading immediately prior to my literary epiphany. The second aspect of the “why and when” is that I had come to the point as an experienced consumer of obscure art where I could not find certain texts fitting ideas and concepts I was interested in. Tired of googling “vaporwave + dream + literature” or “existentialist exercises in muted urban malls” I decided I would just write my depictions of these things myself.

3:AM: What does the title, Faceless in Nippon mean, to you? Is it literal or a metaphor-type thing?

DB: For me the first part is metaphorical, the second is quite literal. The faceless description comes from the feeling of trying to find yourself in the emptiness of this modern orb we float through. Constantly trying to derive meaning from the events that one experiences, trying to forge a unique face for our identity in a world where we are often rendered without one. This is what the narrator is facing while he is actually residing in Japan during this period of his life.

3:AM: Why Nippon and not Japan?

DB: Nippon translates to “the sun’s origin.” To be faceless in another land, to experience seminal moments whilst stationed abroad, to begin the journey without a profile and by the end of it all have a somewhat blurry base for the outlines of something perhaps more meaningful. The origin of a face if you will, bathed in milky light, an embryo of hope from an eon in the land of the rising sun.

3:AM: How long did it take you to write this?

DB: Given how easily these vignettes were flowing out of me, not too long at all. I officially started it on 1 February 2019 during a morning train ride when I made the decision that I was now a fiction creator again. It was fully completed by maybe September or October of that year when I subbed it. There have been minimal revisions while putting it into production after it found a home.

One good thing about being semi-heavy into journalism prior to this was that good drafting and editing skills were already inherent in me. My re-writes were generally pretty painless because my first and second drafts were largely on point for what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. A level of tightness up front if you will.

3:AM: Your twitter handle is @_blackzodiac. What does that signify?

DB: I wish it signified something more poignant and interesting, but the reality is that it was appropriated from a William Gibson book where he describes a certain type of military boat. I do like how it sounds and looks aesthetically though, the connotations & visions you can derive from the combination of those two words is quite wonderous. I just wish that bastard Indonesian fitness dude didn’t take @black_zodiac. Though I have come to own the fact my handle begins with an underscore.

3:AM: There’s some mention of drugs in the text. Do you feel you fit in a certain niche or pocket of writer-type? I know there was, for a brief moment, alt-lit, which became popular because it essentially proved that you don’t need to be able to compose fantastic/beautiful sentences to write. The banal became something new and exciting. I describe your book as perfectly encapsulating banality. To elaborate on this, I actually feel your writing is anything but banal. It’s the kind of writing where there is a lot happening with each sentence. It’s not maximalist writing—maybe somewhere in between? The thing is, you take totally mundane moments about relationships, getting drunk in a Manga Kissa and describing, in great detail, the narrator’s favourite drink. How did you go about finding your voice?

DB: Thank you for distinguishing this aspect of my work—that I explore the banal but not in a banal way. I don’t feel I fit into a certain niche or pocket of writer-type, though I do wear my influences on my what-have-you. The banal and the awe that it can provoke in me as an individual has been an interest for some time. I love to explore the peculiarities of consumerism and garner great satisfaction from idling as a flaneur. There aren’t many better settings to do this than urban Japan. Alt-lit and the way it captured mundane moments, rendering them viscerally life-affirming at its best, has been very influential on me. Tao Lin, Sam Pink, Noah Cicero—these are probably the only three I consider worth reading—were formative in my university years when I started learning about creative writing. It was an exciting time for sure. However, I don’t want to be lumped into the Tao Lin wannabe crate—there is more going on with my work, something larger, something more multifaceted to be considered, to be added to the indie lit canon. Yes, it’s the banal again and  yes, it’s altered consciousness and numbness in modern society, but it’s not the same old bland, blunted sentences.

A love of sci fi, particularly cyberpunk, and engagement with more visual and aural art (at times I just stare at Gerhard Richter abstracts while listening to 30 minute shoegaze swells and see what comes out), have informed my writing in a different manner than the alt lit stylings mentioned above. I have often described Faceless as the result of JG Ballard and Sam Pink copulating and producing one solitary offspring that frequents the convenience stores of Japan. Or the result of Tao Lin and William Gibson mind melding over the wired while they’re both reading the remnants of pirated Walter Benjamin convolutes. The result is this almost abstract contrast of describing minimalist moments in far more elaborate and introspective language. There is colloquialism meshed with more formal, introspective prose in one section, more experimental and surreal text in the next. The landscape becomes a character. The setting transforms into a dream. I think experience with drugs probably does factor into my methods here as well. Altered states of consciousness have largely made me who I am today.

I have always been naturally drawn to the dichotomy of the ethereal and the destitute; the soft and the hard; the smooth and the harsh/mega-abrasive. I basically wanted my literary voice to be the equivalent of shoegaze music—I wanted to take very intimate, sensual moments of ordinary life and make them tactile, bring them to life sensorially. I wanted to create works that I couldn’t really find elsewhere, in particular I wanted to cultivate a voice that could evoke a certain emotion or feeling in a reader not often felt in literature—like those experienced while listening to repetitive music or resembling a certain sensation like floating on water or that moment before you enter a hypnagogic state. These are the kind of things I think about imitating when I write. But I also want to have a relatively conventional narrative underneath, something that I can relate to on a more base level, an actual story too. This aspect of the work essentially underpins the abstract imagery employed to achieve the desired carnal effects at the depth of the surface. I explore this in greater lengths in my chapbook, Ultraviolet Torus, soon to be released on the amazing SELFFUCK and will continue to heighten these effects in further projects.

3:AM: Part of what I enjoyed in this text is the separation of the different sections. Each has a title marker. Are these chapters? Moments? Some are not even a page long. Why go for this format? Is it purely aesthetic or is it linked to the story and the experience of the narrator?

DB: This wasn’t a conscious decision to begin with, it just kind of manifested into a vignette format. As I continued to work on it though, I particularly enjoyed how the format resembled memories of my times abroad. Like how we remember these snippets of moments from our journeys, most of them skewed from the origins of recollection, varying in lengths, some quite substantial, others just flashes in the cornea of a closed eye. I quite deliberately made some of them more familiar and straight-forward and some of them more cryptic and almost indecipherable. For me, putting my mind in that of the narrator, these pockets of moments conveyed in disparate lengths were a more accurate portrayal of how he would experience and learn as he fumbles through life, relationships, drugs and Japan.

3:AM: Was there ever a moment you thought you might not want to write in the first person?

DB: I contemplated it, even tried it for a few vignettes. I felt it became far too insincere in third person—it lost that travelogue vibe I think the text tows quite successfully. Basically, it made the narration feel less intimate overall. Giving a name to the protagonist/narrator also went against the faceless metaphor too, so that experiment was rapidly quashed. Let him be anonymous; let him be unknown.

3:AM: In our conversations you’ve cited William Gibson as a major influence—not necessarily in response to the topics you choose to write about, more, the way you write; the flow of your sentences.

DB: Yes, this is very true, I probably owe the most to Gibson and Ballard when it comes to how my prose is constructed, my linguistic drift if you will. I think the way Gibson can write a landscape as a living, breathing character of a book and his ability to muse esoterically, are features inherent in my work. Descriptions such as ‘corpuscular’ and ‘crenellated’ have been used to describe Gibson’s prose and I think these terms are equally valid descriptors as one falls over sentences describing beverages, escalators and apartments in Faceless in Nippon. There is a lot of minute detail in describing settings, objects, things. Some find this trait of Gibson’s tedious, but I think it is necessary, important, valuable. Let’s see what people think of this trait in my work.

3:AM: I’ve lived abroad, several times, over the years, and the thing with that is, most people who have never done so (or perhaps only once) always seem to romanticize the act. And then, when they reminisce with you, they try and force you to accept that no matter what, it was a great and wonderful time. I appreciate that here, in the text, you lay it all out, all the issues that come with living abroad are brought to the surface: not knowing how to speak the language, going through a sort of panic-mode maybe five times every day because someone said something you did not plan to have to hear, running out of money or almost coming to the point of running out of money, and just… being bored. Living in a different country, while it does have its differences, is much like living at home—where you’re from. Don’t you think? Your temperament will most likely dictate your level of enjoyment (or disdain). What would you say was the point of showing all these different facets of what it’s like to live in a different country?

DB: I think books merely romanticizing countries are boring. That’s not what it’s like. For anyone, in any country. It’s more complex than that. Life goes on with the same up’s and down’s as anywhere else. I wanted to illustrate that escaping your own silent daily hell in one part of the world will not necessarily yield a different alternative in another part of the world. However, you still may find something important through enduring the same hardships in a different location. Sometimes you only realise this when you try something different but still end up in the same position and start to think that maybe what you had before wasn’t as bad as you thought. I wanted to capture that.

I also want to touch on nostalgia here, which is a major force throughout the text. There is a short, important section of the novel entitled “Consumer Nostalgia” which, for me, depicts the almost delirious nature of dealing with memories. Often, we fetishise the past, to a point that it becomes something other, a manufactured memory that we actually should never hold, because in the moment, when the past was the present, we were in fact no happier or better off at all. It is only in the action of re-creating it, rupturing its image and warping it over time that we create a moment we thought was real, but it is purely artificial. The narrator is constantly challenged by these realisations in the text, without really being able to hone in on the answer. It’s like that for me too, but I think I will be forever trying to unlock the essence of this phenomenon. For instance, I returned to Japan to visit friends not that long ago. It was the first time I had been back since I resided there. I tried to capture the same feelings, the same moments, but it was all just futile. It was the strangest thing. You can never re-create a time, an epoch, even in the very same place.

3:AM: Other humans are weird. I can tell you’ve spent some time observing people in the way you write about mannerisms and how you manage to put people’s thoughts into words. Is this something you are able to turn off?

DB: Not really unfortunately. It’s enjoyable, to be honest, but exhausting. Some of my best moments are spent just acting the flaneur. Like I would prefer to be this way than a purely oblivious head on a stick, getting fat on Oreo’s, rolling on by.

3:AM: I’ve read some of your other, much shorter work. There seems to be this recurring science fiction motif. I was surprised to see that much of that was gone in Faceless.

DB: I don’t think it is entirely effaced, it is present, but it is subtle. As you alluded too, you can see the Gibsonian in my work, for instance, even here in this novel. My shorter sci fi pieces published at places like Surfaces and Tragickal are much more overtly sci fi for sure. As I’ve said elsewhere, I feel that to create a sci fi text now, you almost have to approach it from this ‘meta’ sci fi angle, whereby you can never escape the tropes and clichés that have become before you. I think I wanted to avoid that dilemma with my first novel. I am still very interested in sci fi and cyberpunk in particular, but I think the only logical way forward with it for a writer who wants to go beyond pulp genre fiction is to fuck with the syntax, make it ironic, twist it and acknowledge the tropes while detonating them. I think books like Shipley’s Dreams of Amputation and Sierra’s The Artifact do this well, these two really changed the game for me after conceding that cyberpunk was fucking dead. So, there is hope I could write a sci fi book that shits in the face of world building in favour of wrenching the phaser knob of syntactical experimentation to some sort of non-existent degree. I’m sure I will put out a book like this someday, the building blocks are clearly there.

3:AM: What is the writing process like, for you? I know it takes me years to arrive to a point where I feel something is ready to show.

DB: As you know, something we are both willingly or, on occasion, unwillingly, subscribers of is OCD. I was surprised that I was so happy with this novel and how it turned out in such a short timeframe. For me, I just forced myself to write for several months on end, every morning and every night. As I said, my drafting is generally pretty sound, but I feel future projects will take a lot longer than the bodily expelled detritus of a first novel. I actually enjoy editing a lot, I know there are many that hate it, but I feel excited by it. Culling sentences, changing prepositions back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It’s invigorating. It’s meditative.

3:AM: Would you say you are influenced, primarily, by other literature?

DB: Initially, I would say yes. However, since writing my own stuff for the last eighteen months I have hardly read a book at all, maybe like five to ten novels of my fave authors or contemporaries in the expanded literary field. I get most of my inspiration from other mediums like music, anime, internet messageboards, advertisements, etc. at present. I find this has, thus far, percolated unique next-level sensory prose, which is what I am aiming for. I don’t want to infect my own voice with the voice of others at this stage.

3:AM: What’s it been like, working with ExPat Press?

I didn’t really know what to expect, first book and all. Being very informed by aesthetics and mildly OCD, I wanted everything to be perfect format, typeface, cover (especially cover). Manny has been a dream; he has been attentive and informative. He has let me drive the process, but has also stepped in with suggestions when appropriate. He is really a rare faceted gem that needs to be celebrated by the whole indie lit community. Couldn’t speak highly enough of the way he has handled it. I think this year’s releases on the press are all incredible and many years later, people will still be talking about this crop of books. Anthony Dragonetti, Elizabeth Victoria Aldrich, James Nulick… Talented and unique group for sure.

3:AM: I know that ExPat doesn’t sell via Amazon (unless I am mistaken). Do you feel you might be alienating a certain audience, those who prefer the convenience of a one-stop shop like Amazon? Perhaps, this isn’t even something you think about?

DB: It’s an interesting point and something I have only recently thought about during the pre-order window. With the giddiness of making my first novel a reality, I was far more invested in content and aesthetics and ensuring we put out the best product we could to match my vision. There is a chance it could alienate some potential ‘casual’ readers, even more so given the book is very international—I am from Australia, the book is set in Japan. We already have orders from many international destinations. I would like the book to become a cult-like text found in Japanese flop houses and working holiday dorms, so reaching a wider audience is pivotal. Manny and I have discussed the best way to handle this and we are confident we can accommodate readers without deterring the ‘one click’ warriors, but if we are moving units we can always revisit our approach. I do really appreciate what Expat and others like Amphetamine Sulphate are doing in terms of bypassing a monopolistic monster like Amazon. By submitting to the insta-capitalist forces, presses either take a huge hit from warehouse fees or basically have to rely on print on demand opposed to having qualitative control over a print run. I like the idea of avoiding it, but again, I am willing to change my tune if necessary. It’s always a delicate balance between morals and convenience these days.

3:AM: Are you planning a book launch party? Obviously, due to your location, a lot of your compatriots and press mates aren’t going to be able to participate (if you are even planning an event). What are your next steps? Maybe “taking a breather” is out of the question.

DB: I don’t know many writers in Australia besides my good irl friend Shane Christmass. He and I were going to do a joint release party in Melbourne for my books (both Faceless in Nippon and Ultraviolet Torus) and his most recent soon to be out on Amphetamine Sulphate. However, given the whole covid quarantine thing, Shane’s book is not out yet and furthermore, no venues will even be open. So, we will most likely do something Zoom related, get some readings going virtually. Think this format has proved successful with the Plague reading series that Anthony Dragonetti has recently been hosting. Timezone will be the trickiest part for me. We will make it work though and we will damn well make it extravagant.

3:AM: This one is for the search algorithms. Are there any films or other books you would say Faceless apes/resembles?

DB: Well, those with a keen eye will be able to tell that the typeface of the title resembles one found in a certain Sofia Coppola film. The novel is riddled with both overt and covert Kobo Abe references. And with my avid sci fi enthusiasm, a few Blade Runner riffs had to be thrown in for good measure.

To ‘play the game’ and maximise search engine optimisation: Lost in Translation, Enter the Void, Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes, The Ruined Map, Confessions of a Mask, Blade Runner, the Shinji dream scenes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Arcades Project, The Book of Disquiet.

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Dale Brett is a writer and artist from Melbourne, Australia. He is interested in exploring the melancholic malaise and technological ennui of the 21st century.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Mike Kleine is a writer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 17th, 2020.