Interviews with Experimental Writers: No. 1, M.J. Nicholls

25 Mar

Here we introduce an occasional series of posts to this blog, interviewing fellow experimental writers. First up is M.J. Nicholls, author of The House of Writers and Postmodern Belch. As we shall see, M.J. modestly states that he is not a writer of experimental fiction but merely following in the footsteps of the craft’s great exponents. You can find him on his blog and on Twitter (just click the links). He also works as an an editor at the innovative Verbivoracious Press. 

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The House of Children’s Book Illustrators

What first got you interested in experimental writing?

Reading Flann O’Brien and Georges Perec as an impressionable man-child. A prominent Scottish man then introduced me to Gilbert Sorrentino and the saloon doors were blown open.

Who are your major influences? Why?

Any author with a penchant for wordplay, fiddling with form, and a strong humorous voice. Gilbert Sorrentino showed me the pleasures of play, and the tantalising possibilities of the novel outside the world of conventional fiction. Other authors I worship include Flann O’Brien, B.S. Johnson, Raymond Federman, Christine Brooke-Rose, and the Oulipo writers. The filmmaker Armando Iannucci sparked my passion for humour with his talent for surreal, satirical writing and inventive language.

Are you interested in experimentation in other fields of the arts?

Not with the same fervour as in fiction. I’m an avid viewer of European cinema and its charming curiosities and innovations: most recently, the work of Dutch auteur Alex Van Warmerdam whose warped tragicomedies like The Dress and Waiter exhilarated me with their unhinged imaginative visions.

What would you say is experimental about your writing? What is your writing process?

I wouldn’t use ‘experimental’. I pin that term on proper innovators (see list above), whereas I tend to frolic in their wake. I write with a blurb-outline of the novel and wing the rest. Detailed plans and intentions are too tempting to mash. Usually, I prefer writing in short-burst chapters and use lists, dialogue-only sections, repeated phrases, and semi-confessional shticks, to break up the standard narration.

How long did it take you to write The House of Writers? Where did the idea come from?

About two years. I was worried about the surfeit of writers out there and the dwindling number of readers in here. At some point in the future, when faced with the public’s apathy towards reading, I wondered what might happen to the last cluster of writers who refuse to surrender their pens. So I invented a place for them to practise their professions, albeit in a passionless and programmatic capacity.

What were the particular problems you faced in writing it? How pleased are you with the end results?

At first I wanted the novel to focus on one character and his madcap adventures up and down the floors. I became bored with this narrative, so started a sequence of splintered stories from inside the building. This splintering became more appropriate for the novel, and made the thing more pleasurable to write. I ended up with a more coherent structure than I had imagined. The end result was published, which convinces me it has some worth.

What are you working on at the moment?

The last in a trilogy of novels on writers, readers, and publishers. The House of Writers is the first, and the second (not published yet), The 1002nd Book to Read Before You Die, I completed last year. The last novel, The Consultation Room, is ‘about’ the manipulation of readers and writers by middlemen, and the impact this has on the calibre of the literature we’re made to confront in bookshops. 

What are you reading at the moment?

Beckett’s How It Is (an unpunctuated monologue of a man crawling through the mud), J.G. Ballard’s Complete Short Stories Volume Two (breathtaking apocalyptic and dystopian parables), and Carlos Fuentes’s Adam in Eden (alongside G. Cabrera Infante, my favourite Latin American writer).

Which one book would you recommend to someone wishing to investigate experimental fiction?

I would invite readers to peruse the catalogues of Dalkey Archive Press, FC2, New Directions, Verbivoracious Press, et al. 

If the Oulipo invited you to join would you do so? What about the Illuminati?

If the Oulipo invited me, I would know they had been seized by the Illuminati. I would perform an intervention at once with a copy of the Oulipo Compendium and a spatula.

There you have it, then.

I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to me about his writing. Below is an extract, Writer Portraits, from The House of Writers (Sagging Meniscus Press), available to buy on Mammon-Goliath-Mammoth (otherwise known as Amazon) and elsewhere. 

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Mr Nicholls

Movements

Freed-in-Fiction

The Freed-in-Fiction movement was the hippest club for intellectual dropouts, child/wifeless male academics, and assorted creatives unwilling to face up to their personal problems. A coterie of exhausted English Lit & Creative Writing students, failing upon graduation to rise to the challenge of carving careers for themselves in teaching or editing or corporate proofreading, decided that their fictional creations were far more alive and interesting than their real lives, and elected to neglect the quotidian in favour of vicarious living through their novels. One of the founders, Dan Inch, laid down various rules to help direct the group, the first being a complete shunning of publication of any kind—to publish was to acknowledge that books (and themselves) existed in the real world, whereas they were looking for an ontological loophole that excused them from the business of living (choosing to dismiss their actual corporeal presences on the planet as irrelevant). The second was that their physical presences on the planet were to be treated as part of their ongoing oeuvre—an unwritten extension of their books through the medium of movement and speech. This unhinging of reality, naturally, led to deviant behaviour. One writer in his novels had written an antihero who went around shooting corporate criminals and having sex with random beauties whenever one wandered into the narrative. This behaviour, replicated in real life, was not repeated, although the author beat up random bankers, shop managers, or anyone who appeared to be indulging in capitalist excess, and conducted himself in improper ways around women with pinching and unsolicited touching. These writers were commonly regarded as laughable and clueless until a harsh winter finished them off.

The New Established Writer Movement

New writers, i.e. those who had been passed over by agents and publishers for decades, chose to establish themselves as established writers. To achieve this, a list of books published overseas was invented, alongside false overseas agent and publisher contact info (including false agent and publisher websites), and new (i.e. old) manuscripts were sent to UK publishers with the salvo of a respected publishing history (in Australia or New Zealand) to help pique the interest of agents and publishers. If successful, The New Established Writers would find their latest (or earliest) novel published and, depending on sales, find their non-existent backlog sped into print to meet the demands of a burgeoning audience. Most of the writers had ten or so complete novels in their drawers, and in some cases a whole catalogue was “re-issued” simultaneously (with the author having to typeset and print fake copies privately to send to their real publishers so facsimiles could be made). This movement was exposed in a similar manner to the The New Writer movement some years earlier, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Serial Listing Movement

These writers believed that the furniture of conventional novels was superfluous; that the ordered line-by-line dialogue of characters was superfluous; that the linear page-turning plot was superfluous; that deep insight into the human condition was superfluous; that the finger-tingling all-over assault on the brain and body produced by the most masterly of stylists was superfluous; that the words on the page themselves attempting to communicate something or nothing at all were superfluous; that double or triple meanings were so many layers of mouldy custard within a smelly trifle; that the spooky transference of art from brain to page was mystical bunkum; that the physical rigor required to bring books to fruition was a lazy dreamer’s hyperbole; that the bitter sacrifice of sanity, soul, and sexual needs was the pitiful cry of a loner; that all the precious components of timeless literature could be reduced to a series of blank lists with no substance or heart. The movement was criticised as a direct nouveau roman rip-off, and a harsh winter finished them off.

The Anti-cis-heteronormativist Movement

This movement set about rewriting literature with the assumption that all characters were trapped in false gender identities, and by allowing characters to realise their true gender roles, free literature from the oppression of the cis-heteronormativists who had been imposing heterosexist ideals on readers since time immemorial. The first rewrite was Jane Eyre, with the famous heroine recast as a pangender transitioning towards a more male-centred outlook. The plot was tweaked to castigate Rochester for his persistence, where he learned to respect Jane’s complex gender position and stronger romantic pulls towards female sexual partners. Further rewrites included David Copperfield realising himself as a queer heterosexual, which better explained his attraction to Dora Spenlow; Molly Bloom identifying herself as a “fifth sex”, outside both genders, outside all non-gender classifications, a separate class known as Bloomism—sort of a magnet for all sexualities, genders and non-genders; and Raskolnikov as a transsexual in process of becoming a woman so he could be kept by a husband and write without having to concern himself with making a living. This movement, while an amusing contemporaneous reimagining of the patriarchal canon and a necessary riposte to the tyrannous influence of university syllabi, suffered due to the lack of talent involved in pastiching the originals. A harsh winter finished them off.

The _______ Movement

Four men who did no writing whatsoever and bragged about their lack of achievements at writing groups, readings, and events. Their belief that more than enough fiction had been penned over the last three centuries was illustrated with the blank notebooks they carried around and the no pens in their pockets (if approached for a pen, they made a show of patting their pockets and declaring: “Sorry, we never need one!”), and if presented with a book published after their inception, they refused with the refrain: “Sorry, for us the buck stopped a while ago!” (the buck meaning new books). In writing classes, the men would sit in silence, staring into space during the live writing portion, infuriating the teachers by insisting on a four-minute silence during their allotted reading aloud time. At author readings, the men would turn their backs on the authors during the readings from their new books and listen to loud punk on headphones, resuming their attention after the applause. If the author’s first book had been published after the group’s inception, the men would book seats and not turn up to the events, leaving the chairs blank as a protest (despite the fact the rooms were usually empty anyway). On online workshops, the men would embed pictures of blank pages, or include a sequence of blank ____ lines, and delete the abusive feedback. One time, an ex-vintner with a first novel out castigated them for wasting his time by standing up to ask a question and singing the chorus to ‘Fernando’ by Abba, humiliating them after the show by exposing their movement as a testament to their own failure as writers, and their pathetic need to flaunt their failure by spoiling the success of others. The harsh vintner finished them off.

Interview text ©PSR and M.J.Nicholls 2017. Novel extract and author photo © M.J. Nicholls 2016. Graffiti image © PSR 2017. 

 

Where Armorica Ends

24 Feb

Finisterre. In some ways, the name tells you all you need to know. Land’s End, the Celtic Fringe, where Europe ends and the Atlantic Ocean begins…

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Travel around the small towns and villages of rural Armorica and you’ll find a society at the edge of the world. The young people, those with professional ambitions, the holidaymakers – they’ve all left. One by one, the amenities are disappearing too. It’s obvious that some of the former café-bars there have closed. The buildings are falling into disrepair. The drapes drawn across the windows of others inform you that they’ve served for the last time. Long ago, Christopher Hutt wrote an insightful and prophetic book about public house closures in England called The Death of the English Pub. I don’t know if a similar work has been written about this phenomenon in northern France, but the pattern is being replicated here, some thirty years later. 

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And those same processes are taking place across Europe. The internet, retail parks, supermarkets, the privatisation of social life, the agglomeration of industry and jobs into the European core… the causes are multi-fold. Smaller communities Europe-wide have had the heart torn out of them. The spaces where village life would have taken place – the chapel, the bar, the games pitch – are public no longer. 

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Sail west from Armorica, then, and you reach America. The pun isn’t mine. It belongs to the master of wordplay and encryption, James Joyce. “Sir Tristram, violer d’amores,” he wrote in the second sentence of Finnegans Wake, that great and impenetrable meditative word-game, “had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor…” As an Irishman, Joyce knew well the “scraggy isthmus” of Europe’s Celtic Fringe. He chose to live in Paris – arguably, as a great artist, it was essential that he worked out of one of the continent’s great cities – but he never stopped writing about Ireland. Those remote and rugged places lay claim to you and won’t let go. 

I’ve seen it happening from my own provincial patch of the writing universe. The Writing Den lies some fifteen minutes walk from the nearest village. When I first started spending time out there, it had four bars. The Bar des Sports with its boules pitch is long gone, as is the crêperie and bar with its cast of reprobates. Last year, after several changes of ownership, the bar-restaurant that served as the local truck stop closed its doors.  Now only the Bar Tabac remains open. The post office, grocery, butcher’s, newsagent, hairdresser’s, children’s clothes shop and stores selling electrical appliances and gardening supplies have gone too. The depopulation adds to the quiet and charm. The ruins are charismatic. They increase the region’s hold over me. But I worry where this decline will lead, when it will end. It may not be the end of the world but it sometimes feels as though you arrived there. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

The Roof Above Us

18 Feb

Well, I’ve just returned from the Writing Den, where I pushed on with my work-in-progress. I exchanged the shelter of one roof for another, a”change of scenery”, to employ the truism, needed all the more in the depths of the English winter. 

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It was a good ten degrees warmer than back in England, ideal weather for exploring. Brittany is a spiritual place. You feel it in the landscape around you, in the lakes and forests, the granite hills and fast-flowing streams. You sense the countless generations that have walked there before you, from pre-Christian times onward. And when you lift your eyes skyward there are those magical cloudscapes too. 

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A friend and I walked out into the countryside from the hamlet. He was telling me about the distinctly non-Christian principles by which he has conducted his spiritual life. We came across a ruined chapel on the edge of the wood. The real sky was breaking through the holes in the painted one on its ceiling. Organised religion in the West is in retreat, in terminal decline, perhaps. If we’re not careful, we’ll lose those ancient buildings along with it. And we’ll lose something more if our lives focus solely on the material and nothing more besides.  

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You used to see elegant ruins in rural East Anglia. Not now. A derelict garden shed will be re-categorised as a “development opportunity” and priced at £100,000. But that chapel was a reminder for me. Above all else, the roof of a building must be maintained. On a practical level, I shall need to pay to have the roof of the Writing Den fully repaired over the coming year. Otherwise it’ll end up looking like the buildings in the photographs below. For me, spirituality extends to contemplating the birds in the birch trees in the garden (or the sparrows in the quince bush, since I’m back in England). I must remember to look upwards from time to time and reflect. If we neglect the interior life we leave ourselves exposed to the elements, metaphysically speaking.  

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Clearly, that roof has been troubling me at some subliminal level. It seems that I’ve been writing about it in my work-in-progress.

It all begins with the roof.  Take a four-storey suburban villa, for example.  No one lives there any more.  Once the tiles slip and start to let in water, its structural integrity comes under threat.  Unless the holes are quickly patched, the damage soon spreads.  Filthy streaks line the walls.  Wallpaper begins to peel.  Pools of standing water gather on the floors and damp stains the ceilings below.  Section by section, the plaster blows and comes crashing down.  One after another, the windows are smashed and let the rain in.  It’s surprising how quickly the floorboards and ceiling joists become saturated then turn paper-like before collapsing under their own weight, taking any remaining items of furniture with them.  The house is already beyond repair.  The garden around it has become a dark and forbidding place.  Ivy claws its way toward the gutters.  Buddleia blossoms between the bricks, the memory of Himalayan crags clinging on inside its roots.  Roof timbers rot and fall inward.  Staircases fold in on themselves like broken accordions.  Denuded of its roof and floors, the house becomes an empty box.  Its former personality is no longer recognisable.  The basement and bathrooms, the scullery and servants’ rooms, the nursery and drawing room, they exist only in memory.  Even the ghosts have moved out.  The walls themselves are in danger of collapse.  The chimneys have already fallen.  With the front door broken off its hinges and its rotten windows hanging open, the house presents the world with a hollow, senile stare. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Where America Begins

4 Feb

At the eastern end of England, that’s where America begins…

I was strolling idly through the streets of the old town on my day off, charting the large number of former inns. It’s an ancient port and the crews would have spent much of their time drinking in its hostelries when they came ashore (and womanising and fighting too, no doubt). So quiet are its streets these days, your imagination has to work hard to envisage it. 

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The house where things started

As I meandered, I noticed for the first time a plaque attached to the jettying above the doorway of a medieval house. Looking at the weather-boarding on the neighbouring buildings I might almost have been in New England. In fact, it’s a construction method once common in this part of England. A few structures of the kind still survive in my dreary hometown, fifty miles away from here.  

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Home of Christopher Jones, the real Captain America

So let’s examine that plaque…

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It informs us that it’s the house in which Christopher Jones lived. His ship was almost certainly built in the dry docks here then sailed to continental Europe numerous times over the following decade. And then, in 1620, Captain Jones and his ship were chartered to take a hundred Christian dissenters across the ocean to settle in the land that would become New England. Maybe Jones assembled his crew of thirty or so in the bars of those long-closed inns, at The Drum and Monkey and The Three Cups, The Mariner’s and The Swan. It would have been an adventurous party, for sure, willing to spend endless weeks at sea, sailing to an unknown land. And it’s where modern America begins. 

These are the American centuries, the dawning of a brave New World. Count Basie and Martin Luther King, KFC and the KKK, John D Rockefeller and Joseph Heller, Wells Fargo and Orson Welles, clap-boarding and water-boarding, Elvis Presley and Levi’s jeans, RCA and the CIA, Apple Inc and agent orange, Old Sparky and Sparklehorse, the White House and white supremacists, Donald Duck and Donald Trump, the D-Day landings and moon landings… Everything that America has become begins here. Your macrocosm is my microcosm. There’s a glistering world held inside a faded and forgotten port, a mighty tree within the seed of a New England maple…

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A letter to America?

And that is where my footsteps led me, as I wandered the back streets of an inconsequential eastern town, from a timber-framed ship master’s house to the shores of the most powerful nation that ever existed. America begins at the world’s end. As the slave or the Sioux could tell us, such power can be a force for great good in the world or can perpetrate enormous evil. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Nothing of Note

28 Jan

Lost and found, lost and found…

What’s the worst thing that could happen to a writer? Well, he could be killed by fascists, of course, like Lorca or die in a plane crash like Ibargüengoitia. He could go blind as Borges did or mad in the manner of Clare. Okay, so I’m still alive, physically and mentally intact. Otherwise, losing a notebook is just about as bad as it gets. And that’s exactly what’s happened to me. Twice. 

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Old notebook showing an outline timeline of the events in my work-in-progress

When considering what to call this post, I noticed that I already had one called ‘The Lost Notebook’ in my drafts. A year or so ago, I left my previous notebook in the bar I used to go to for a cooked breakfast and coffee. That was the first time. And I got away with it. The wonderful staff of The Golden Lion Inn (closed now, sadly) found it and put it to one side for me.  

The second time, I left my notebook at the gate in Madrid-Barajas Airport when juggling with too much baggage. We were somewhere over the Bay of Biscay when I realised it was missing, compounding the sense of loss I was already feeling (the journey was taking me away from my beloved). The flight attendant apart, British Airways proved singularly unhelpful, providing me with a series of telephone numbers that didn’t work, that were never answered, that were answered but supplied an unintelligible response… Needless to say, I didn’t get my notebook back.

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Notebooks – useful for storing railway maps when travelling and writing

I once considered using the discovery of a lost notebook as a narrative device. The location was to be a train rather than an airport. Lost in transit. Oh, the irony… It seems unlikely that my notebook will follow that trajectory. I’m pretty sure that someone pocketed the pleasingly weighty pen (bought for me as a leaving gift by former colleagues) and threw the notebook in the nearest bin. 

So what did I lose? A year’s worth of notes on my work-in-progress, the notes for my next projected novel, the diaries of my travels in Mexico and Colombia, my list of fragments of overheard dialogue… oh, nothing of note, then. To be frank, I feel rather bereft. I’m hoping that this loss will push my imagination in unexpected directions. Well, you have to finish on an optimistic note. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Alas, Harry Math’ws

26 Jan

Alas, Harry Math’ws hath pass’d away

Avant art, anagrams, grammar-play

Abstract, Dada, Yank astray

Harry Math’ws hath pass’d away

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All text © PSR 2017, with apologies to E.J. Thribb.

Image of HM © Ingrid Estrada

Railway Trip to the Seaside

21 Jan

I’ve written much about my travels across the ocean of late (just as well since I’ve lost my travel journal – but that’s another matter). Sometimes, all that’s required to reinvigorate the spirit is a little local jaunt. I’d been feeling world-weary and so, late in the day, I decided to take the train to the seaside. 

On previous visits to the town, I’ve generally been passing through, on my way to another country. This time, I took the train to the end of the line. Happening upon the local offices of the far-right UK Independence Party in the back streets of the old town was a little disconcerting (it looked like a low-rent estate agency combined with a discount store – how appropriate…) but I found the townspeople to be friendly. After all, how can an international port turn its back on the world? 

As you’d expect of a port, signs of the maritime life were everywhere. There were the numerous pubs, of course, arcane nautical crests and jocular frescoes. Trinity House, the former occupying power, has left its mark on the architecture of the town – lighthouses, lifeboat stations, coastguards’ cottages… So much to see, my two-and-a-half hours there felt like a week-long holiday. 

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Old inn, former lightvessel

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Lighthouse, lighthouse

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The sun was setting as I followed the coastal path

I ended my micro-vacation at a small and friendly inn, housed in an ancient timber-framed building. The port’s old town is packed with former and current pubs. I had merely to mention the African grey parrot, perched in his cage by the bar, to find myself included in the conversation of the other customers in the snug. That bird was further from home than me. I had travelled for forty minutes on the train. He had flown in from the Congolese rain forest. As I write this, the UK Independence Party is probably arranging to have him sent back. 

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An artificial isthmus to nowhere – it was so tempting to defy the instruction.

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Boats of all shapes and sizes

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The light dies out to sea

All text and images © PSR 2017