Your forthcoming poetry collection is called Musicolepsy…
‘Musicolepsy’ is a medical condition, whereby epileptic fits can sometimes be triggered by auditory – and specifically musical – stimuli. One of the poems in the collection – which, incidentally, was first published in Leftlion – is about a nineteenth-century music critic called Nikonov, who was suddenly overtaken by musicolepsy during a performance of a Meyerbeer opera; thereafter, he found himself unable to listen to music, and used to hide from it, because of the danger of its triggering a seizure. Obviously, this made his job as a music critic impossible. I came across the story in Oliver Sacks’s wonderful book Musicophilia, and one or two of the poems in the collection are inspired by Sacks’s work which has always fascinated me.
How would you sum up the collection?
In this way, the collection is about music and illness – and, in a wider sense, the relationship between music, memory and science. There are a number of poems, for example, which explore cosmological themes, and overlaps between cosmology and music.
I have learnt so much from Maria, poetically speaking, in terms of structure, cadence and imagery. She has always been my favourite poet - of course - as well as my fiercest critic. I think all writers need someone close who’s patient, supportive but also – above all – honest – someone whose opinion is trusted. Maria reads everything I write – as I read everything she writes – and gives me honest criticism about it. Everyone needs this – a reader who is willing to criticise – and every writer needs to be willing to take criticism, and listen to it, and assimilate it.
Start by writing two drafts: a first, private draft for yourself, where you try and write everything down, try and be honest about your subject-matter, and a second draft for a reader, where you brutally cut down and reshape the first draft into a readable and entertaining narrative. This is the terrible truth of writing a memoir to be published: you’re going to be read by people who don’t know you from Adam, who (at first) don’t care whether you and your loved ones live or die. The only way you can earn that ‘care’ is through the writing, the narrative, the style. The central paradox of memoir-writing for publication is that you’re writing to entertain, even where the subject-matter is often painful or traumatic.
Why did you write the book? Was it purely cathartic or a case of ‘write what you know’?
I started writing the book as early as the late ‘90s, when all sorts of hidden family secrets started emerging: I found out, for example, that I had a half brother and sister I didn’t know about, that my father had been married before, that he may or may not have had Electric Shock Treatment for depression when his first family split up, and that – further back – he was ‘given away’ - maybe or maybe not for money - when he was a young child. I think I started writing these things down to make some kind of retrospective sense out of my father’s story; and the same goes for his illness: after he died in 2001, I wanted to understand the narrative of his illness as all illnesses have stories, after all. That is, I wanted to understand, in retrospect, and put into some kind of narrative order, an experience which, at the time, was chaotic and confusing.
Your first novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt) tells the story of an eccentric individual obsessed with ants. Have you been watching too many Attenborough documentaries?
Everyone loves David Attenborough, don’t they? And actually, there is a short nature documentary featured in the novel itself, which is based on a real TV programme I saw many years ago which wasn’t, by the by, an Attenborough documentary, but an over-the-top U.S. one. The novel is also, though, based on a heavily fictionalised version of a very close friend of mine: when I used to live with him, he was obsessed with ants, and seemed to infect everyone else around him with this obsession. He has since written and published a wonderful, little book about ants and literature, called Insect Nations.
What’s your favourite ant fact?
I think the very basis of the novel lies in one of the first ‘ant facts’ to which the main character, Edwin, refers – that is, the idea of ‘trophallaxis’, whereby each ant in a community regurgitates some of its food to share communally. For Edwin, ants form perfect, utopian communities based on sharing and mutual reciprocity – whereas human societies are ‘terraced hells’ based on self-centredness, loneliness, violence, isolation.
I couldn’t stop thinking of Withnail and I when I read the book. Did you have a particular image in your mind when you wrote the character?
Ah, again, I love Withnail and I. Oddly enough, it wasn’t till I finished the first draft of the first half of the novel that I realised the film was haunting it slightly. Obviously, though, the novel moves a long way from its precursor, especially in the second half. Another film which haunts the novel is It’s a Wonderful Life – one reader described the novel as a kind of modern-English-provincial-cynical-urban version of that film. I don’t mind that description at all – after all, every text has its ghosts and precursors.
You lecture in creative writing. Any top tips?
Erm ... it’s difficult to distil into a short paragraph what I teach, after all, over three years for undergraduates at De Montfort University.
"All writers need someone close who's patient, supportive but also - above all - honest"
Crack on, we're in a recession. We want some free teaching…
There are some obvious general tips, though: firstly, I think writers now - and especially poets - have to realise that they work within a community, both of writers and readers. Writing itself is, of course, often a very solitary activity – but disseminating your writing is not. As a writer, you work within various communities, including those of other writers, readers, editors, publishers, critics, booksellers and, in a wider sense, the whole professional writing world. Some writers, especially beginning writers, find this hard, because writing itself is solitary, and writers are often, in the best sense, self-absorbed people. But in the end, if you want to get your writing out there, you’ve got to engage with the world – and that means going to readings, listening to others read, taking on board feedback from editors, performing at events and so on and so forth.
Poetry or fiction?
I suppose I’m half-expected to respond to this question by saying neither or both – that I love them both equally. And that would be true: they both give me huge amounts of pleasure, both as a reader and writer. I do sometimes wonder, though, if in our strange contemporary world, that one really underrated and ‘important’ form might be creative non-fiction. Indeed, novels and poetry themselves are often at their most powerful when dealing with difficult, non-fictional images and subjects – look at Dickens. I think fiction and poetry are at their strongest when dealing with difficult non-fictional i.e. real-life problems and images – when they’re brave enough to try and encompass the strangeness, comedy, tragedy, horror, stupidity and grotesquerie of the world. Science-fiction and fantasy actually have a head start in this respect, and can sometimes be more realistic than so-called ‘realist’ fiction, which is sometimes too safe, too domesticated, too uniform in tone and subject-matter to deal with the bizarreness of people and everyday lives. I love Dickens, as well as Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Eliot, Rushdie, Jonathan Coe, because, at their best, they try and do this in fiction and poetry.
Crystal Clear Creators published two Nottingham based writers. Yer get meh?
Then there's Crystal Clear Creators…
I set up Crystal Clear Creators ten years ago with Robin Webber-Jones. It’s an arts organisation which works with writers – it runs live events, records and broadcasts new writing, hosts workshops and heritage projects, and publishes new writing – for example, its in-house magazine Hearing Voices, and its series of chapbooks, Crystal Pamphlets. At present, because we’ve recently published six poetry and short-story pamphlets, we’re closed to submissions – but I’m hoping in the near future to run a new project, in which we publish our first full-length single-author books.
What are you doing for the Festival of Words?
Maria Taylor and I are giving a joint reading at the Nottingham Festival of Words at Newstead Abbey on Saturday 9 February, 2-3pm. Maria will be reading from her new poetry collection, Melanchrini (Nine Arches Press, 2012), and I’ll probably be reading from my novel, Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) – as well as maybe a bit of poetry or short fiction. It’ll partly depend on the audience on the day, because my novel is, erm, a little ‘adult’ if there are children in the room.
You can invite any four writers or characters from fiction for a fry up…
Jenny Wren, Micawber, Betsey Trotwood and – for a bit of danger, because all good parties need a bit of danger – Quilp, all from Dickens, would, I think, make a great gathering. Jenny Wren would end up on the roof, Micawber would regale everyone with wonderful and exaggerated conversation and spend all the money, Betsey Trotwood would keep running out onto the lawn scaring ponies away - a bit like my own grandmother, who used to run out onto the lawn at all times of day to scare away pigeons from her bird table - and Quilp would get everyone drunk and cheat at cards.
Poetry, fiction, publishing, lecturing...what do you do when you’re not writing?
Look after our twins, Miranda and Rosalind – though it’s probably the other way round: I write in the small gaps left by the twins and, indeed, lecturing. I don’t mind this – I think I’d go round the bend if I had to write all the time. In fact, I rather dream of giving up writing, and taking up a more genteel pursuit like electric trains.
Join Jonathan Taylor as well as a whole host of poets and writers at Newstead Abbey on Sat 9 Feb as part of the Festival of Words. Get yer tickets here