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Written Out of the Story

Wayne Holloway interviewed by Fernando Sdrigotti.

Londoner, Wayne Holloway is an unlikely candidate to be writing the next Great American Novel. Yet his latest book, Bindlestiff, abandons the city by the Thames, jumps across the Pond, and attempts exactly that. Part satire and piercing critique of the Hollywood machine, part dystopian rumination on a possible America to come (not too far away in the future), partly a tale of friendship and survival against all odds, Bindlestiff has been welcomed by outstanding reviews, particularly due to its experimental form. In early March 2019 I met with Wayne to chat about his work, politics, story-telling, and the not so rare phenomenon of British writers deconstructing the American Dream.

3:AM: Your latest book, Bindlestiff… At times a standard novel. At times a film script. It jumps from 2016, to 2022, to 2036. It imagines a post-post-apocalyptic America where some minorities seem to have acquired a lot of power due to the disappearance of the nation state. What is Bindlestiff? How did it come to be?

WH: Conventionally speaking the hero of this novel is ex marine Frank Dubois, a black Charlie Chaplin figure, kind of like an archetypal Empath. Years ago I wrote a film script called Land of Hunger for Forrest Whittaker… his agent love it, he loved it, yada yada, it never happened, but the characters in the screenplay always stayed with me. The novel is set mainly in a post federal rather than a post apocalyptic 2036, with flashbacks and parallel narratives either side.

3:AM: There are parts of the novel that due to the thematic are evidently fictional. Other times you seem to play with the genre of — and forgive me the label — of autofiction. I refer here to strategies such as writing yourself into the novel as @waynex, The Author, with capital letters. Is there here an attempt on your part to challenge the limits of fiction and autofiction? Or did this come from a real personal experience? I ask this as I am aware you have worked and work now with the Hollywood film industry.

WH: In fact I think @waynex allows me to write myself out of the novel! God I’m sick of myself, so the trick is to repurpose, riff on and further fictionalise stuff that happened to me what I hear and what I see out in the world, stories told to me at whatever hand they come. Being out in the world does give you a different swagger than googling for sure, but @waynex is probably only psychologically me, not emotionally or factually me more than say 30%… see I’m trying to escape myself, besides our memories are only textual constructs, as ultimate are we.

3:AM: In the novel you are very critical of Hollywood. Not only of the Spectacle and the system that produces this Spectacle but also of the way in which business is conducted, the things people do to stay on the scene, and the ways in which everyone seems to exploit one another. As you are also a director, don’t you feel this kind of approach could compromise your ability to work in this industry?

WH: Funny because I am not interested in — and am tired of the — staple critiques of Hollywood. What interests me is the emotional and psychological damage the system creates in even its most loyal subjects: the Golems that haunt the boulevards prepared to do and say literally anything — everything — for money. In the sense that with money comes everything else and without it nothing flows… the way this perverts our natures is fascinating but more so is the persistence of vision and story, the love of stories that is still at the heart of our cultural contract with Tinseltown. Despite all of the above, the culture built up over 100 years a continuous authenticity of creative endeavour from the late 19 century if not earlier. So at worst Hollywood is authentically fake — it is the real deal. I mean Kirk Douglas’s dad was a puppeteer from eastern Europe, when shadows and the puppets they threw on Shtetl walls was cinema, political, funny, subversive and sentimental by turns. Plus ça change.

3:AM: So you believe there is still space for storytelling — in the historical sense, as something all cultures engage with — in Hollywood? Where does the storytelling end and the Spectacle begin?

WH: To enjoy the story you have to minimise the spectacle of the process of making the story, which is what Bindlestiff attempts to address. We all know there are many twisted wizards of Oz but how many of them do we need to see? The Western world’s fascination with Hollywood is a drag on its ability to spin its webs, pulling it back to earth, which is fine, it’s what critical thinking is all about, understanding the means of production etc, but we have to find a space in which we leave all of this stuff, information, over capture of information at the door, so to speak. Sex and cinema are so similar in this respect. After all, information porn and porn are essentially the same.

3:AM: Going back to the book… So we have the story of @waynex getting screwed over a film. And we got the story of Frank, several decades into the future. This is obviously the film @waynex is trying to get filmed. And in a way it’s as if this story had taken a life of its own. Could you tell us how you got the idea for this kind of “Charlie Chaplin” character? And how did you get to this idea of an America where the state has all but vanished?

WH: My Nan Winnie who has just turned 102, and is our own living legend and font of so many tales, tall, short and otherwise, told me a story I use in the book about going to see Chaplin in 1921/2 at the Star music hall in Bermondsey, for her 4th birthday. She remembers him but not whether he was on the screen or on the stage, this at a time when music halls put on both… and there was my door beckoning me… and before I forget to come back to it, the state has ceased to exist for many Americans already, for some it hasn’t existed since the early 1920’s; for others it never has. And I’m talking politically/economically and culturally.

3:AM: There is a particular moment in Frank’s story that I found fascinating. From one scene to the next, actually the same scene repeats, and he’s white, he talks differently, relates to women in a different way. I had to read that part twice because the first time it took me by surprise. Do you feel that in 2019 there wouldn’t be space for a black lead à la Frank?

WH: I remember a producer not having the facts at his fingers, stats around black leads in film for different regions, and in that split second losing a black lead in a (small budget) film. Money talks and these stats talk in favour of having black leads in movies for certain markets. In the right set up, there are a lot of consequences around Netflix etc, more than just the Screen vs TV ‘non ’debate’ that focuses on diversity and inclusion in terms of what we see (not necessarily behind the camera), and the black empowerment of a new generation of directors following on from the last ‘trailblazers’ as every generation that tries to change the system is always the first, reflecting how brittle advances can be inside any machine. It is not a coincidence that Black Panther opens with an action sequence in Busan, South Korea, to sell that movie to a Chinese/Asian audience this was a no brainer…

In a movie would Frank be more traditionally cinema heroic? Would his bumpy ride through life be flatter in a movie, would the path of redemption be fed into the grinder of the three act structure? Probably! In the novel I also send up any notion of purity of vision. And the criticism of the screenplay in the prose are largely true, flashbacks usually suck in films. Writing a novel I get to have all of the possible Franks. Him being switched to a white lead is conjecture. As to how many screenplays are written with black leads who aren’t in black films this is the problem, which is why Wesley Snipes for instance (who gets namechecked in Bindlestiff), Ice Cube to a certain extent, are very important in this debate, black actors playing what could be white parts. This is the rubicon that is yet to be fully crossed. Imagine (randomly) the following: The Revenant, The Favourite, Ice Storm, Girl on a Train, 40 Year Old Virgin…films that are not substantively about race starring black or other actors of colour, and we see literally a different picture, which is why in Bindlestiff I write scenes from different pictures, some by side although going in the reverse of this radically proposed direction, putting white actors in black roles, which is sadly a well trodden path.

3:AM: Your previous book is called Land of Hunger. This is the same name that the film in Bindlestiff gets after @waynex get screwed over by the Hollywood producers. Are you parodying yourself here?

WH: It would have been the name of the film, but am happy to send it up as it is a bit pompous. Actually it is the title of a book about 14th century Italian peasants dreaming about food in delirious states of hunger and out of their mind on ergot by Piero Camporesi, but that as they say is another story…

3:AM: Reading Bindlestiff I recalled reading James Miller’s Un-American Activities. These are different books — Miller’s is more of a comedic satire — and still there are points of connection: both engage with a deep America; both make a very vernacular use of language. How does a British author go about this without falling into stereotypes or clichés?

WH: You have to throw yourself into stereotype and cliché to come out the other side. ‘Lapdances With Wolves’ in Bindlestiff is a native American stripper who smokes meth recreationally in 2036 FFS! This is both true and a cliché and fictional until somebody uses that name. I have been talking to David Keenan (Memorial Device/For the Good Times) about this. He’s met some readers who think the characters in his books are real people who they know and berate him for having got some of their details wrong. Wendy Erskine (Sweet Home) has observed the same phenomenon. Words in the right order are invocational. So for me there are in the world Native American strippers, I hope I made up the ‘Lapdances With Wolves’ (but maybe somebody else got their first, possibly that person is a stripper) and sadly there are Native American lap dancers who smoke meth. The venn diagrams are all there. And 2036 is in the future, my get out clause!

I enjoyed Miller’s book, and his notion of deranged realism, which I think encompasses these points about stereotype and cliche, which irrupt into any and all texts despite the writer’s intentions.

Finally I would draw the line at only one point: if you are there and somebody tells you a story, you had to be there to hear it. I use the phrase “tired of the invisible chains” in my story, I heard straight from the mouth of somebody else’s…

3:AM: I agree with this. I think the best kind of writing is also a kind of theft. You know, putting together all these details that you’ve heard here and there, perhaps in a different context…

WH: It’s all cut and paste, but not in the 70’s literal sense, there is more slippage, misremembering and playful malapropism in this type of theft and repurposing. The Loki element, the invocational, is something I never thought I would embrace, but sometimes in just hitting the keys of your laptop, not stopping but just channeling your brain out onto the page and then only later going back and tweaking this is almost an act of summoning, or to be brave it is an act of summing. That’s the fun, that’s the buzz, therein lies the pleasure…

3:AM: Something that stayed with me after reading this book, is that for all the post-post-apocalyptic flirtation in it there’s still space for friendship, love (in some way), and togetherness. I’d say that Bindlestiff is a rather optimistic book! Did you intended this to be so?

WH: Totally! Most people fill their lives with hopes and dreams sustained by this type of optimism. After spending a lot of time in LA and NY, finally venturing out of the bubble can only be an optimistic experience. One of the things the Soviet Union struggled with was what would the future be like, not after the revolution but after the revolution had achieved communism. It’s the journey that gives us the most rewards, which is true for good writing and story. Adorno said: “What can oppose the decline of the West is not a resurrected culture but the utopia that is silently contained in the image of its decline”. And that is where the optimism of Bindlestiff is, exactly there…

3:AM: But on the other hand, for a book that’s quite optimistic about humans’ ability to find a commonality, there is a warning about what could be the decimating factor for humanity. This is not an apocalypse caused by a nuclear conflict but by the climate and the collapse of technologies we take for granted (like GPS). Is this a realistic possibility in your opinion? Or are you using these tropes for their purely fictional weight?

WH: Sadly I didn’t make up all of the tech stuff, and these challenges will as always make us better which is a bigger tragedy in some respects, but at the core of what humanity is, by turns creative and reactionary. Change is the natural state physically but emotionally and psychologically we are taught to value stasis… hence we get climate change deniers, etc.

3:AM: Why did you decide to publish the book in the UK and with an independent press?

WH: I had zero contacts or friends in the publishing world and was unlucky enough to meet Kit Caless, from Influx Press. Seriously, these indie peeps have the same passion for other stories, and lust for books, life, as the characters I like to write and read about… so…

3:AM: Are there plans to try to get this book published in the USA?

WH: Yes, we are looking into that now and my agent is setting it up for either TV or a series… so Frank will be back, and maybe even Whittaker plays his namesake in the book, Forest Speaks, who in my mind is the other hero of the film, along with Lucy Looks twice, Lapdances, Train Wreck Larry and the rest…

3:AM: Could you tell us what you are working on now?

WH: A novel called Our Struggle, a riposte to both Hitler and Knausgaard. Again this book talks through many others…

3:AM: What is it about?

WH: Our Struggle begins on the London Underground in the late 1970’s, takes in university politics and theory of the 1980’s, through post modernist nihilism of the naughties, and ends with a young woman’s death fighting ISIS in Rojava in the early teens. All of this through the lens of erstwhile tube driver Paul and his lifelong — albeit intermittent — friendship with union leader Bob Crow. A satire on the dreams and shibboleths of the young left in the 80’s and how so much of this ended up brutalised by the rise of Neo-Liberalism; how the the swagger and fuck you insouciance of an older male working class collapsed into cynicism and marginalisation, all this set against the surprising renewal of optimism and resistance in the feminist cauldron of northern Syria, and the forgotten struggle of the Kurdish people for their independence and the new international brigades that draw many disaffected western youth to their ranks.

3:AM: I know you studied under Derrida, Laclau, Zizek. Is this work inspired by that experience? How do you think “The Academy” has changed since when you were at the University of Essex in the 80s and today? And finally: how has your contact with theory influenced your writing, if at all.

WH: I was so lucky to end up at Essex in the 80s and had Ernesto Laclau as my MA supervisor in the first year; he ran the ideology and discourse analysis course. Zizek taught on it, and we riffed Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva, Foulcault, Dworkin and the rest, now so lionised by new generations (apart from Dworkin who has been forgotten, more on her in a minute). Funny to have been there and seen the day to day reality of these ideas which basically rehash and rework what Gramsci wrote from prison so many years before, adding post structuralist psychoanalysis into the mix… Our Struggle attempts to understand these ideas through the eyes of students from different backgrounds, worker, student, male, female and if and how they are relevant to the struggle in the world and not just academically.

Abdullah Ocalan has studied the anarcho-syndicalist theories of Murray Bookchin from his prison cell and adapted them for the practical struggle of his people into the actual politics of the PKK/YPG/YPG and posited a radical feminisation of Islam as a way forward in Syria. How could such a bold and in many ways idealistic project not inform the climax of the novel itself and be deployed textually as its central thesis? So Our Struggle beats out My struggle in the fight to the death for the future!

It’s also a rock and roll story of an imprisoned man in the mask leader/hero on an island that’s only 3km in circumference, riffing on an old Jewish American anarcho-syndicalist and coming up with Democratic Confederalism as a solution to the nation state blood letting that has dominated the world since the year dot..and to have an international brigade of fighters, as many women as men flock to northern Syria to fight against Isis but more importantly to fight for a different way of living and dying for that cause and belief is a fucking rock and roll antidote to the social media ersatz activism that has brought the rest of us to our knees. To not have that in a novel, to not engage and attempt to fucking understand, parse, channel, mythologise that reality would be an abandonment of my post, my lookout, my struggle…

Flashes of memory; Zizek always talked too much (no shit). Laclau was (older) more reflective and generous of his time and spirit, calmly stoking his moustache in the study of his house in Shoot-Up Hill, Kilburn, his partner Chantel Mouffe a smart writer in the (as ever) shade of these men.

Which finally brings me to Andrea Dworkin. Like a female Timothy Mo she has been written out of the story. Go read, go figure. She also has a starring role in Our Struggle

Fernando Sdrigotti is the author of Dysfunctional Males, Shitstorm, and Grey Tropic among other titles. He lives in London. Twitter: @f_sd.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 28th, 2019.