After Turks abduct his bride the night before their wedding, Ivan Gelski heads into the mountains on a quest for revenge, but, transformed through music, his path leads ultimately to martyrdom and sainthood...
Congratulations on being nominated for the East Midlands Books Award, it’s a pretty incredible shortlist...
It's certainly an impressive shortlist, and so I feel in very good company. Not only this, but many of the writers who didn't make the shortlist are writers whose work I admire hugely. It's a sign that in this part of the world we have a pretty vigorous literary culture.
Tweet us an outline of The Descent of the Lyre…
An unorthodox tale about Orpheus, guitar music, violence… and an Orthodox saint nobody has ever heard of.
What attracted you to the tale of Orpheus?
I've been interested in the story of Orpheus for a long time. As a classical guitarist, I have always felt a fairly strong connection with the myth, and it is a story that has deep roots in Western culture. I like to think of The Descent of the Lyre not as a retelling of the myth, but instead as a set of variations upon it.
Why did you reimagine the tale in 19th century Bulgaria?
I went to Bulgaria first in 2005, and felt that it was a place where interesting stories could arise. I had my guitar with me, and had always had a long fascination with Bulgarian music. So I think that the story came out of the connection between the music of Bulgaria, the landscape, my own love of the classical guitar, and the myth of Orpheus. On that first trip, I went to Gela, which is said to be the birthplace of Orpheus. There was very little there, to be honest, but it planted a seed of the story. I think it was in that same year that the archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov - "Bulgaria's Indiana Jones"! - discovered the Thracian cult site associated with Orpheus in Tatul. So two years later, I headed back to Bulgaria to go and pay my respects to the musician-king, and to research the book.
Why is music so important? What does it do to us as people? Confession: I still wear the occasional flower in my back pocket as homage to Morrissey…
Music is interesting because it affects us in such a pre-conscious fashion. There's an odd intertwining of music and violence in the novel, as there is on the novel I'm currently working on, which I don't fully understand myself. One thing I suspect that interests me is that much of our experience of the world is physical and pre-linguistic, and music works on this level. It's strange how you can listen to music and be filled with a sense of meaningfulness, without it actually meaning one thing or another.
As for flowers, not enough people carry flowers in their back pockets. I confidently predict that when Morrissey is Prime Minister, it will be required by law.
Give us five tracks from your dream ipod…
Well, I love everything by Tom Waits. The version of “Telephone Call from Istanbul” on Big Time is great, and I've always attempted to live as much as possible by the maxim, "never trust a man in a blue trench coat / never drive a car when you're dead". So far, this has served me pretty well. Keith Jarrett's Köln concert is wonderful—I love the fact that as he gets into it, you can hear him making these ecstatic cries of joy as he plays. I should probably have some guitar music in the mix, so I'll go for Paul Galbraith's brilliant arrangement of Bach's Ciaccona from the Partita in D Minor, which is a piece that I have played for a long time, but not nearly as well as Galbraith. That leaves two. I should include Valya Balkanska's "Izlel e Delyo Haidutin", which has the distinction of being one of the pieces of music furthest from earth, as it was on the golden record on Voyager II space probe. It's also about Bulgaria and banditry and has that unmistakable stamp of duende that I love. Finally, Gogol Bordello's "Oh No!" is a brilliant call-to-arms in favour of the things that matter in the face of endless bullshit. So that should be on the list too.
Now be honest, you only wrote this book because it gave you the opportunity to travel to Paris, Vienna and Bulgaria. What did you learn on your travels and how did it help you write the book?
Rumbled! In part, I think, you are right. But perhaps I both travelled and wrote the book because the pleasure of both travelling and of writing is the pleasure of discovery. I like finding out stuff. I like heading out into the world and exploring. I like turning up stories the way you turn up strange critters lurking under stones.
For this book, I made three trips to Bulgaria. The first was in 2005. Then I headed back briefly in 2006, which was when I sketched out the outlines of the story. Then in 2007, I took the train down to Bulgaria and spent two months, courtesy of the Arts Council, travelling around, meeting people, and writing intensively. I couldn't have written the book without the help of my Bulgarian friends who helped out enormously with the fashioning of the story, and who were often stern critics as the project took shape. The strengths of the book are in part thanks to them.
"Walking ten thousand miles of the world is better than reading ten thousand scrolls." Chinese proverb
You've been over to China quite a bit recently as well. What is it about travel you like so much? Is it the people or the places or are you a restless soul?
I was doing research towards a book based on the Yijing (I Ching) or Book of Changes. The manuscript is now finished, and so I'm waiting for verdicts from various publishers. I'm not sure if it is restlessness. It's more that I don't really see the need to stay in one place when there's a whole world out there. The China stuff, however, has got under my skin. I plunged into learning Chinese for that book, have been sucked into Classical Chinese, and am hoping to find ways of heading longer-term to East Asia in the future, as I have several projects I want to write coming out of these interests.
One thing I like about travel is that it opens you up to happenstance and chance. If I stay at home, I know more or less what the next few hours are going to be like. I'll read, check my email, hang out with the cat, make a cup of tea. Being on a train in Gansu or in Bulgaria isn't like this. I like not knowing what is going to happen next.
Philosophy is a regular feature of your work, be it explicit or implicit. With this in mind, why do you think people derive so much pleasure from writing? My personal feeling is it enables a level of control over circumstance that are perhaps not possible in ‘real’ life.
Is it about control? Or is it about investigation, hypothesis, exploration and play? I think writers are probably different here, and write for different reasons. And not everybody, of course, gets pleasure from writing although I think that writers sometimes like to rank up the machismo by talking about the difficulties of writing, as a way of convincing others of their greatness. I've been told, incidentally, that when I write philosophy, I spend my time chuckling to myself, whilst when I write fiction, I have a much more serious air. This feels like it is the wrong way round.
Given your love of oral culture and folklore I wondered how you feel about digital technology, where we perhaps lose the intimacy and ‘aura’ of the campfire, if you see what I mean.
I'm a bit of a digital technology junkie. Even though I reserve the right to be ambivalent about almost everything, there's much about the way that we communicate now that I love. Walter Ong says that we've entered an age of "secondary orality" with mass media communications. There's something in this. For example, I can call up Beijing for free, and chat face-to-face to friends there as a way of practising my Chinese. This is astonishing. We are storytelling animals, and so we tell stories any way we can.
I don't think I have an overly rosy view of the past. I'm glad to live now. I like modern medicine. Many people I know and love would be dead without it. Nevertheless, the pleasures of camp-fires are considerable…
In Finding Our Sea-Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories you put forward two philosophical suggestions: Aristotle’s idea that ethics is like navigation and from the storytelling traditions of India, that stories are like the sea. Did this leave you waving or drowning with regards to finding a conclusion?
Both, I think. Ultimately, perhaps, we're all drowning. So you can either drown-and-wave, or drown-and-lament. In terms of philosophy, I've always loved Lucretius and also Calvino, who is one of his biggest fans, who recognises that everything collapses in the end, but who finds ways of opening up local spaces of pleasure, harmony or even joy within this broader picture of decline. This seems a worthwhile pursuit.
You’ve recently published a philosophical guide to Happiness. What makes Will Buckingham happiest?
Happiness is not everything, as I point out in the book; and there are very different kinds of happiness as well, not all of them compatible. I confess that I'm still a bit irritated by the things that the blurb-writers put on the back of that book, promising the readers something I had no intention of delivering. But what makes me happy, other than well-behaved blurb-writers? I think that I'm perhaps at my happiest when I'm feeling that I'm on the scent of something—a new story, a new idea or a new possibility.