I have had an odd relationship with writing over the years: as a child I drew over everything compulsively and was never without paper and pens, but I didn’t read much. I was mainly interested in the pictures in books, not the words around them which seemed to me to be very dull – words words words. The things I remember liking always had interesting drawings in them, and the rougher, or gorier, or dark, or more surreal, or perplexing the drawings were the better: they were ones that most attracted me. Like anything by Raymond Briggs. I recall having 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne, with a drawing of a submarine being attacked by a giant octopus, and Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carrol, with the imprint by Tenniel of the Jabberwocky, the copy of which was later replaced under mysterious circumstances by a more modern, abridged version with drawings by a different artist that I never liked as much. Of course, my dad told stories at bedtime to me and my brother, and we both loved those, but they were off the page.
My non-reading continued well into my teens and 20s, although I always wrote a lot: it seemed to me that it was a quicker way, sometimes, to get my imagination going – you could draw a man being eaten by a lion and it would take ages, or you could write the words, and bang! There it was. So quick, so streamlined. Drawings and pictures with a small amount of words combined seemed the ideal medium, and I got totally into comics. No more of that boring blah blah blah words words words getting in the way. Here was 2000 A.D. magazine! Here was Dredd – and his lawgiver fired six different kinds of bullet! Then there were the great compendiums we had at home: Mickey Mouse comics from the 30s and 40s, Peanuts, and the wonderful Popeye, in his Bud Sagendorf incarnation, faithfully maintaining Segar’s loonball imagination. I’d faithfully copy out my own versions of J.Wellington Wimpy, or Alice the Goon, getting their gigantic boots just right, or arguing with my brother about the differences between Charles Schultz’s early drawings for Peanuts and his later ones, when he was suffering from a tremulous hand owing to the onset of essential tremor. (I began to understand something of what Schultz must have been suffering much later in life, for reasons I might explain sometime). Naturally, there were the ever present Oor Wullie and The Broons, in the Sunday Post.
The only book I really remember having an impact through reading and words alone, without pictures, was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Although my dad read us extracts of the novel, the funny bits with Jim and the magic hairball, and the Widow Watson, I used to get hold of the copy and read it myself, and it’s hard to overstate how much of an influence that must have been. It’s still my favourite book, though it has its faults, and I return to it every few years and rediscover anew the pleasure I got from it when I first encountered it. That’s really what you want from a novel: something you can return to and find something fresh in every few years. Its certainly true that the novels people say are their favourites are not necessarily the ones they go back to again and again. Very few novels can hope to achieve this, perhaps its more common with poetry, or even short stories, but I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the novels I go back to over and over.
Anyway, after I left school I went on to do a foundation course in art and design at Manchester Polytechnic, now Manchester University. There, I had my first crisis of identity. I had stopped drawing – virtually overnight – in fact, I had no interest in drawing now whatsoever. This was extremely strange, because I was in a position where the thing that seemed most natural to do no longer wished to be done. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to – drawing didn’t want to. Maybe it was simply artists block or something, but I’ve never really returned to drawing in all the intervening years, except for very brief flirtations. Needless to say, this hindered my artistic career somewhat. I suppose it was around about this time I began to read actual books, with words, and no pictures – yes, that’s right, the boring ones. I left art school, not having achieved very much and very confused about what it was I was meant to be doing. If I didn’t draw, what else could I do? At that time in the early 90s, it seemed like nothing could be done. As far as I was aware, there were no jobs you could do if you were interested in art, no outlets, and not much interest in that sort of thing. Now, of course, the possibilities are endless what with the Internet and all that. And maybe for a different type of person, you could have made something happen back then, but you had to know what was you wanted to do at least. So I came home and signed on the dole and spent a few years that way, playing guitar in a band and generally scraping by.
But I had begun to read, and luckily or unluckily, the books I remember being most struck by were the ones that made you feel like you may be able to do that yourself. I loved Kafka’s stories, and still do, but it was reading Charles Bukowski that made me feel I may be able to do such a thing myself. And of course through Bukowski I was introduced to Hemingway, and from Hemingway, accidentally and without permission, to Chekhov, to Katherine Mansfield, to William Saroyan, John Fante, Hamsun, Beckett, and so on, in a kind of chain. And the kind of pulp noir that interested me too, Chester Himes, and Raymond Chandler. As an aside, I have no time for James Ellroy’s dismissal of Chandler. Marlowe is one of the great literary characters, and Chandler’s single-handed invention of a style and an archetype are peerless. The book I really got completely consumed by was Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, and it is another story to return to again and again.
At the same time as thinking, well maybe I could write something too, you’d have these incredible novelists doing incredible things, setting the bar so high that you could never possibly even dream of being as good as that yourself – which sort of made the whole thing seem utterly futile. Why even bother? If you can be the best you possibly can, and that best is nowhere near the level you aspire to, then you may as well just fucking forget it. So those are the sorts of things I was thinking. But I started to write a little anyway, trying to move on from the Boys Own sort of stories I’d written at school. What now to write about though? It’s hard for a 20 something to even have anything to write about, it’s hard to know what you should be writing about. It’s still hard. The next story is always the first story. You’re always at the beginning, and this is both the joy of writing – that it can always be new – and the pain of it: the blank page is a vicious bully. The blank page is always what you’re left to deal with.
They say that even the best writers tend to write the same stories over and over again, that they deal with narrow strands, but make the strands full of enormous potential. Think of a novel like Hunger: Hamsun describes it as being like a concerto played in a single string. I love that analogy and I love that novel. There are few novels I’d like to have written myself but Hunger is one of them. Strangely, it’s the one I feel like I could write. Maybe great novels do that, make you feel like you could have written them, or that they are your own stories somehow. When I was trying to learn how to write, I did exactly as I done with drawings, I copied the flow of sentences, their rhythms, how they expanded and contracted to contain meaning; I copied Hemingway ‘s sentence structure from stories I liked, like the beginning of The Three Day Blow, and tried to put my own complexion in there, my own situations or ones I’d heard about from other people I knew. I’d do this with every new writer I was discovering and enjoying, some with more success than others. It was good practice and something I’d recommend to anyone trying to learn the craft. Copy, copy, copy. Sooner or later, if you’re any good, you manage to push beyond that into something uniquely your own. I must have done this with dozens of writers, all different types of writing, different styles, different subjects, different punctuation, different grammar. I don’t think this kind of copying does any harm at all. Unless you get stuck in it. The people who get stuck don’t usually get anywhere with the writing, or they become genre writers: they find a simple template and work it to their advantage. Sometimes they go on to sell millions of books. Bastards.
But back to influences. I’m now not sure what my influences are. Life, obviously. Everything I’ve read obviously. But I like to think I’m my own writer now. It’s not for me to say. I still have difficulty reading, and probably don’t read anything like as much as I should: blame the Internet for that. That seems to be where I do most of my reading now – I’m not sure how much of a good thing that is. I’ve not reading anything like as much fiction – especially contemporary – as I should, and I’d like to read more but I have a short attention span, and there are other things I’d like to be doing. And how can I when I still haven’t finished The Brothers Karamazov? The thing I like to do most is to actually write. That’s where the pleasure is for me.
Naturally, I’m always looking for new books to love – but I don’t love that many. How can you better Too Loud a Solitude? Hrabal has all my love, I might not have room for another. And there’s something to be said for a filial amour, I think. I like to play around with language, voice, those sorts of things. I have difficulty with plot, and in truth I’m not that much interested in it. Not any more. For a while I tried to make myself into the sort of writer who plots everything in advance, who knows what’s coming next and how to write it, but I found it wasn’t me. I thought I could be more efficient that way, rattle out one novel after another, maybe even make some money. But as soon as I tried to write in that manner the characters would say or do things that would take the whole thing in a different direction, sideways, backwards, in entirely new directions – and the plot would have to change until it became unrecognisable. This was a pain in the arse but it was also useful. It showed me the kind of writer I couldn’t be – and that’s a useful lesson.
So although I spent a lot of time trying to become this kind of writer and failing I did learn something from the process: that those moments when the characters took things in a different direction were where the pleasure lay for me. I couldn’t plan, I couldn’t plot, but I could create characters who would do that for me, who would dictate the pace and flow of the action, seemingly come alive, at least to myself if not for anyone else. I think the creation of compelling, real, people on the page is the highest achievement in literature, and that’s what I set out to do every time I write. In that sense, I’m influenced by other writers who I think have done this, or got close to it, like Hamsun. Even someone like Beckett, who in many ways defies this kind of thinking, ultimately does this. In his work the language itself seems to be a character, like the disembodied voice in Not I. Here is language creating character out of nothing at all. My goal has always been the same: almost to write about nothing but make it utterly compelling. I think another writer has said this but I can’t recall who right now. Beckett talks about boring holes in language to see what’s underneath, and Burroughs does something similar, slices it up, cuts the supply lines – though his purpose, and his method, is distinct from Beckett’s. It certainly solves a problem: what to write about? In fact, don’t write at all, just make sentences. I think you need to be at a certain level of writing ability to achieve this with any success: I don’t claim to have reached that level. It’s sort of full circle, because as a young writer you try to emulate these kind of patterns without ability, able only to produce hackneyed and pretentious imitation. As you improve as a writer and start finding your own voice or voices, you leave that behind, then later, I think that one day it may be possible to return to this kind of thing with greater success. I’m not sure. I’m not there yet. Making big things out of smaller, ordinary, banal lives and occurrences is what interests me in writing, and in reading. Good old Sherwood Anderson. I’ll take Alice Munro’s, or Flannery O’Connor stories anyday over anything by Philip Roth, who I freely admit I don’t get. I know he secretly wishes he could write like her too.
At the moment, I’d like to finish my current novel in a shorter time frame than it took to write the last one. Maybe in the next year or so. After that I have plans for another novel, but when I say plans, it’s really only some vague ideas I’ve had rattling about inside my head for about four years. No plot, no definite idea of what will happen, only a few images that I’ll probably be writing towards – or perhaps, away from. That may change though, it’ll be the characters that decide what happens and where it goes. Something to do with cycling, and the one after that will be to do with landfill. But who knows. It’s really the page that decides, not even the characters, because the page comes first and is always there last too.