Originally published on The Short Story
Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hi Lochlan, thank you for speaking to us. Could we begin by asking about your development as a writer – when did the craft switch from hobby to profession, and what have been the major landmarks in your development?
Hi! That’s a good question. It’s hard to put my finger on an exact switch. The idea of hobby versus profession is something I struggle to fit to the act of writing.
There seems to be a general assumption that if you are getting paid to do something then it is a profession and if you are not getting paid then it is a hobby but you don’t have to look too far to realise there are plenty of people out there getting paid exorbitant amounts for very little ‘work’ and others producing very serious writing for next to nothing.
I was paid as a writer of non-fiction and journalism before making any money with my fiction writing but that never made one seem like a ‘profession’ and the other a ‘hobby’.
Did you study literature at university? Your debut certainly gives that impression!
Thanks. I studied Physics but I’ve always written and read fiction so my fiction-writing developed relatively organically. Physics and fiction can at times be positioned as polar opposites- the hard-scientific approach versus the wooly and imaginary – but literature and mathematics often approach some of the same sorts of questions about the world. Hopefully The Wave captures some of those.
Why do you think writing is important?
At a very simplistic level I guess it is important as without it we wouldn’t have anything to read. The two processes of reading and writing are obviously linked and we need both if we want to continue that part of who we are.
By ‘that part of who we are’ are you referring to the part of us that is the story-teller or reader?
More in the sense of who we are as a species, culture, etc. Writing has very rapidly become pretty much the primary way we interact. In a relatively short period of time we have replaced a huge amount of our social and business interactions with various forms of text – whether email, online media, Whatsapp, messenger etc…
It’s hard to imagine society without the written word but if we had to somehow go backwards and rely only on spoken/recorded language (and perhaps written mathematics) it seems clear we would all be very different!
Obviously when you write a Whatsapp message it is normally with a different intention than writing fiction but the fact that writing is so prevalent does make for a greater continuum of written words. Maurice Blanchot talks about literature beginning at the moment when it becomes a question and I think that some kind of intention to question the world is what drives the most interesting fiction.
Literature is a part of the way we construct the world around us – a great piece of writing can absolutely change your perception – and it is unique in that it’s one of the few art forms that is in a way divorced from the senses. There is an immediacy, a real, instant feeling you get from watching or listening to dance, music, film, sculpture, or artworks on a wall in a gallery. They are all experienced directly via the senses in a way that is not present in reading.
Literature is this weird cryptographic-artform whereby you stare at a page of symbols and ‘something’ appears. If you watch a theatre play or listen to a song in a language that you don’t understand you might not get the full significance but it is never completely obscure. The body language of the actors, the tone of voice, the pitch of the instruments all give an immediate sense of the piece.
If you contrast that with opening a book in a foreign language there is obviously a huge difference. If I open a book of Japanese prose I have literally no idea what its about. There may be a tactile element to the book and you might be able to say something about typography or page layout but I would argue that effect is unlikely to provoke much feeling in the reader.
Other art forms are at one remove from reality – a reflection of reality created by the musician, painter, etc, – but literature is at a double remove – hidden behind this process of deciphering hieroglyphs. I think in a strange way it is this double remove from the real world that gives really good literature its unique lucid quality. Im sure academics have explored this in more depth elsewhere but would be great to read some more on this topic – if any of your readers know any more on this from a neuroscience perspective get in touch!
That’s interesting – I’ve read a lot about reading being a form of interpretation – of all viewing, in fact, as a form of interpretation – of a decoding of signs and symbols through the lens of our own personal psychology and knowledge of the world. Is there a difference between listening to a story and reading it, in so far as levels of remove are concerned?
Yes I think that’s an interesting question. I would say there probably is. There are definitely similarities between reading and listening to a story but the difference with oral storytelling is that it is still tied to our sense of sound (and sight, through body language, if the teller is in front of us).
If we listen to a storyteller in a foreign language we might get some sense of the flow and the emotion even if we don’t understand the words. (although I guess it is possible to mislead the listener and give false emphasis if they don’t understand the words.)
Writing in contrast has none of these sensory clues to ‘flesh out’ the story. If you take this alongside the explosion of writing in modern culture I think it creates some interesting questions about our society and where it is heading. Baudrillard’s concept of sign-order and simulacra and the relationship between reality and symbols for instance is only really possible due to this strange disassociation
from reality that writing possesses.
I also wonder if music also requires a degree of contextual understanding – throughout the world there must be many different variations on what constitutes ‘music’, let alone whether it is good or not.
There is certainly a high degree of contextual understanding involved in appreciating music, as with other art forms, but in each case there is still an immediate sensory element. We can tell for instance that animals react to different forms of music even though they are probably not appreciating it in the same way we do.
You’ve published a number short fiction pieces in a variety of places – one of which we reviewed last year – what attracts you to the short form?
I’m not sure I am attracted to the form so much as some stories somehow end up that length. When writing there is a sense that the length of each scene, plot point, description, etc is already dictated to some extent.
Too short and it does not capture the full effect, too long and it loses the magic.
I might compare it to using a lens to focus an image on a wall. The sharpness of the image depends on the focal length of the lens and the sweet spot depends on the lens itself not the person holding it.
I was listening to Bill Bryson’s A History of Nearly Everything the other day and there was a passage about sixteenth century French scientists who travelled to South America and generally caused havoc wherever they went – I couldn’t help notice some of the parallels with your chapbook ‘The Open Cage’ and wondered if the story had been inspired by such excursions?
I’ve not read A History of Nearly Everything but certainly ‘The Open Cage’ was influenced by other readings of those early explorers in South America. The conquistadors had this fascinating mix of blood-thirstiness and violence with a deeply held belief in a divine being who exemplified and expounded meekness and sacrifice.
On a related note I recently read César Aira’s short novella An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter which I really enjoyed and brilliantly mixed old-world scientific resolve with surrealistic, almost pagan imagery.
Aside from short prose, you’ve also written for the screen and earlier this year your novel, The Wave, was published. How do these different forms relate to one another, and what are their varying strengths and weaknesses?
For me the form, like the length of a piece of writing, is to some extent determined by what feels natural for the story itself. I might initially try writing something as prose and end up putting it to one side because I feel it’s not working. It might sit there for a while until I get the idea to try writing a piece of dialogue between two of the characters in script format and suddenly it clicks.
With The Wave I knew from the start that I wanted to include certain sections in script format to highlight the distinction between the separate story strands. I wanted to create a novel that constantly brings the reader out of the narrative, where the reader is not only questioning the characters motivations but the text itself. Hopefully that works in the end and it delivers something that a potboiler that you can ‘lose yourself’ in doesn’t but I realize it could well be irritating for a lot of readers too! 🙂
This suggests that there is a limit to the amount of manipulation a writer can bring to a piece and that there is what some you and others have called a natural length / form, or focus to pick up on your earlier metaphor. Some writers use the example of a sculptor working with his material, chipping away at the rock until the image is revealed. Does this image resonate with you at all?
Yes that metaphor resonates. It can feel like the story is often hidden in there and is slowly revealed as you type.
On the issue of form though I would add that it is possible to switch a story from one form to another given the right creativity. For instance for me, the best film adaptations of a book are normally those that change the narrative in some way or add something radical as opposed to those that aim to show everything simply as it was described on the page.
Much of your writing tends towards the metafictional. Why do you think this is?
I’m not sure
Relatedly, your fiction is marbled with philosophical concerns. Could you expound on this?
Going back to the idea of writing as this weird cryptographic-artform, I think literature is the best medium to explore a lot of these concerns and the short story within that is uniquely positioned to explore the thought-experiment style of philosophical enquiry.
If you look at the work of writers like Italo Calvino, Jorge Louis Borges, Kafka, it clear that they are not simply aiming to create an evocative story to while away a passing hour.
In The Wave and much of your short fiction, your characters seem to be continually searching for something – love, purpose, truth… Are these concerns ones which you have grappled with yourself? And do you feel an affinity with your characters?
I think everyone grapples with these sort of concerns in relation to some aspect of their life but it might not always be clear to the person searching what ‘it’ is they’re searching for. In a lot of fiction the protagonist tends to have a pretty clearly defined ‘quest’ or ‘purpose’ – rescue the maiden, find a husband, save the president – but most of the characters inThe Wave are a bit more confused. Some of them believe they know what the purpose is they are working towards – μ to find Ddunsell or Bohm to finish his theory – but this isn’t necessarily what they pursue.
Is writing, perhaps a way of revealing the truth?
I think the writing process is definitely part of asking what the truth might look like.
Do you believe in a Higher Power – perhaps an ordering principle, like Bohm who appears in the novel?
It’s difficult to talk about a Higher Order with out connotations from existing religions. I would say there are ways of looking at the world that imply ‘higher orders’ in one sense or another and these can be useful ways of looking at things.
Bohm proposes a holonomic order tied in with his idea of an Implicate and explicate order. This describes the brain and the universe in terms of a holographic network and, whether that is “right” or not, I think the concept of hidden orders or depths within reality that are inherently connected provides some valuable and practical insights.
A more traditional Cartesian approach is also useful of course but that doesn’t mean there has to be an either/or choice. A purely empirical view does lend itself to a certain psychology of isolation and alienation which some of the characters in The Wave grapple with.
One reviewer, Bobby Gant, has stated that, ‘in terms of literary influences, the obvious one would be Kafka’. Do you agree?
Certainly a great writer to be compared with. There is a precise element to his prose that seems to turn his stories into these vast intractable word game without any answer.
I first came across Kafka as a kid after staying up late one night and seeing the ‘Before the law’ animated sequence in Orson Welles’ film of The Trial. There was something weirdly specific and yet bizarrely mystical about that section that stayed with me.
I’m not sure how much my own writing is similar but I am pleased if I can capture some of that numinous quality.
The Wave had, at times, the feel of a Murakami novel.
Thanks. I’ve read several books by Murakami and enjoy the way he hints at this subtle ‘other’ world just beyond the reach of the everyday. It’s that line between the ordinary and the out-and-out fantastical or imaginary that is so hard to nail. I have to admit though I sort of stopped after the last couple of books I read as they started to feel a bit samey.
I have to agree I’ve had similar experience with his work and now only read them in intervals for something a bit different…
Returning to the topic of short fiction – what’s your process? Do you have a flash of inspiration and set off without much planning, or do you prefer for ideas to gestate before setting pen to paper?
It can really depend. Letting things gestate certainly does no harm but that doesn’t mean that after sleeping on it the initial idea isn’t still the best. I often jot down some fragments of an idea in the first instance but this can vary from a single sentence to several pages. I might have a fragment of an idea, a setting, a character, a moral predicament and only later I find the overarching plot to fit it. Other times I have an ending but the characters come later. So generally I couldn’t say there was a single approach. Whatever works.
Do you ever use prompts, go to particular places, or listen to a type of music to get in the right zone?
Not particularly. I find that if I start singing along then it’s getting too distracting but otherwise it really depends on the day
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Getting the right words in the right order
How do you deal with the endless problem of distractions?
Hmmmm wish I had an answer to that
What are your opinions on e-publishing and self-publishing?
I think e-publishing is an interesting development but personally, having tried several e-readers, have found the main advantage is ease of access to material while travelling. If I’m not on the road I still prefer to read a physical book.
Self-publishing is really quite a broad topic. It is a bit of a fantasy to think an author can do everything competently – cover design, editing, marketing, typesetting, sales, distribution, etc.
Obviously these all require skills and to do them well it normally means the author has to hire people to help – at which point the only real difference between a self-publishing and traditional publishing model is who pays who.
On the topic of publishing, I understand that Deadink approached you directly. Could you tell us about the evolution from finished manuscript to being in print? It’s an unusual novel and it would be interesting to hear how you approached agents and publishers and how the work made it into hardback.
I initially sent the manuscript to agents and although the feedback was good nearly all said it wasn’t a sufficiently commercial proposition given the current market. Dead Ink have really pursued an agenda of putting out challenging fiction and it has been great to work with them. Arts Council England part-funded the publication for The Wave and two other novels in Dead Ink’s New Voices series and it has been great to see there is an audience of readers who are interested in reading fiction that doesn’t fit in a neat marketing genre.
Finally, which short story writers have most influenced you?
There are so many and it’s so hard to compare them against each other. There are writers I really admire that are completely different to my own writing style while others I am probably closer to in my writing style but doing something very different from what I am aiming to achieve.
As I was saying before I guess I am drawn to short stories that have that element of a thought-experiment /philosophical puzzle. A few authors I would recommend are, in no particular order: Anna Kavan, Roberto Bolaño, Mircea Eliade, Alisdair Gray, Jorge Louis Borges, Kafka…
Philip K Dick was a huge influence as a teenager. The simplicity of his prose mixed with the philosophy and the dark, gnostic universes he created was definitely an influence.
Rupert Dastur is a writer and editor. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he specialised in Modernism and the Short Story, after which he established TSS.He has supported several short story projects and anthologies. His own work is in / forthcoming in The New Flash Fiction Review, Postcard Shorts, A3 Review, Field of Words, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016, and Bath Short Story Anthology 2016.