Tag Archives: Experimental Fiction

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. 

 

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

“Experimental Novel Wins Prize!”

10 Nov

Well, that’s an unlikely headline, isn’t it, at least, so one might have assumed until a Nobel Prize in Obscurantism and Difficulty is instituted, but I didn’t make it up, I just paraphrased, because Irish novelist, Mike McCormack – congratualations to him – has just won the recently launched (2013), £10,000 Goldsmiths Prize for his single-sentence novel, Solar Bones, published by recently founded (2014), Dublin-based Tramp Press, none of which I’d heard of before, I confess – not author nor prize or publisher – but all of which I shall have to investigate, and which offers hope that in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world not everything has to get worse, and to celebrate this post-Tramp world, I’m going to share the second part of my univocalic – the first part of which (Post-Hobo World) I published in my 2015 post, Is The Experimental Novel Dead?’, the third part of which is yet to come – summarising my current work-in-progress and following the abstract image below…

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Log on.  Scroll down.  Spool off.  Long story or short, my story’s thy story too.  Holy book by Doctor of Hymnody or Zoology, told of two by two, of wolf or fox, of sow or ox.  Look, storybooks for schoolboys or bookworms, for Psychology Dons, Profs of Mythology, for provost or proctor.  Story oft told of Mongol lords or monks’ swords, of trolls or scrolls, of North folk – Thor Godjonson, Otto von Rottsborg, Vyktor Rofdogsky – of boys too, of only sons, of cold loft rooms.  Toy loco rolls by wood-block town (sold by old boy from toyshop’s grotto, rosy chops, snowy locks – ho ho ho!).  From Szolnok to Nörköping, Tromso thro’ to Tomsk, Omsk down to Bonn…  Now clockwork robot stomps on clompy boots ‘cross wood-block floor of loft room… 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Is the Experimental Novel Dead?

15 Sep

I note that Tom McCarthy is once again included on the short list for the Mann Booker Prize. He and David Mitchell are touted as the UK’s leading experimental novelists. I wrote before about my experience of reading McCarthy’s novel, ‘C’ and of being unable to finish it. I found its concern with a narrow band of characters from the upper middle class unengaging. In this, the book has far more in common with the work of William Boyd or Sebastian Faulks, it seems to me, than it does with that of Joyce or Beckett. And experimental? Hmm… The timidity of publishers in our dumbed down age stems directly from the industry’s domination by big, risk-averse corporations. I suspect innovative novels are being written out there but no publisher is willing to take a punt on them or the small returns that they might offer. From time to time, something interesting reaches these shores from abroad, a Roberto Bolaño, say, or Diego Marani and reminds us of what is possible. The experimental novel isn’t dead, then. It’s just being buried alive. 

We could draw a parallel with radio. Compare the conservative scheduling of a commercial station like Planet Rock (playing the same old songs by Status Quo and Deep Purple) with the new and interesting bands played on 6 Music. We’ll miss the BBC when it’s gone. New bands will continue to form and experiment but we won’t hear them. They’ll be ignored by Sky Radio 1 and Virgin 6 Music in favour of talent show winners rehashing easy listening from the 1970s. 

‘What genre do you write in?’ asked a new member of my writing group. ‘He writes in a genre of his own,’ remarked Stephen, a writer whom I’ve known for many years. I would make no great claims for the originality my work. I try to write books that I myself would wish to read. I’d describe my fiction as having an ‘experimental twist’ rather than being purely experimental in nature. I aim to intrigue the reader, not to alienate or infuriate him or her. I combine techniques that I’ve encountered in my reading and hope to create something new as a result. And I make no secret of the influence on my work of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and WG Sebald, among others, even if I’m not worthy to clean their metaphorical boots. 

An image from my latest manuscript - thank you, Herr Sebald

An image from my latest manuscript – thank you, Herr Sebald

If all fiction becomes backward-looking, harking back to the realist tradition of the nineteenth century or to tired genre stereotypes, cultural stagnation will surely result. We need the experimental novel, even those of us who do not read it. In the past, innovative fiction has renewed the mainstream. Think of the influence of Hemingway or Kafka. Without it, what will fiction have that television or film cannot offer? 

The extract that follows employs a univocalic. That’s hardly new, I know, but the device pushes your writing in interesting directions, forcing you to give up a little control…

Toomo Tork stows down on Box No. 15.  Toomo’s story follows. 

Locos – lots of locos! – roll by.  Tow tons of goods, stocks, so on or so forth.  Box No. 15 follows Box No. 14 follows Box No. 13… from Moscow to Oslo, Rostock thro’ to Porto, Stockholm down to Brno.  Look now.  Boozy old hobos, Olof or Oolf, hop on or off – Toomo too – go to or fro, got no work or odd jobs only – work on crofts or chop logs – short of food, knock off hooch or hock or scotch, croon songs on dobros of doom or gloom, ‘got no tomorrow, only sorrow’.  Crooks, clowns, snoops, so on or so forth, show ghostly photos of lost towns or sons, old dogs or smoky motors.  Locos roll on slowly thro’ frosty woods of dogwood, cob, broom, holly, thro’ hollow nooks, follow flow of cool stony brooks, by smoggy old towns, sooty lorry or loco works, by spooky ghost towns of low blocks (no doors, no roofs, no floors), roll on now, God only knows why.  Cows low on foggy moors – ‘Choo-choo!’  ‘Moo!’ – flocks of rooks or crows roost on rocky knolls, owls hoot from snowy rooftops, poor dogs howl, woof-woof, bow-wow… 

All words and images © PSR 2105

It’s all in the technique…

17 Jun

Today, as I laboured on a section of my work-in-progress, I employed a couple of new techniques that I believe will help to push it forward. As I’ve mentioned before, my last two projects have deployed a similar approach to narrative. They contain multiple narrative strands, superficially resembling the cut-up technique. There’s actually nothing random about their arrangement at all.

I shall call the first technique ‘sectional enjambment‘, because I’m pretentious like that. Previously, where there might have been some kind of preamble, linking a section to preceding ones in that strand, today’s section begins almost in mid-sentence. I think the effect is interesting and imagine that it immerses the reader right back into a particular narrative without drawing his or her attention to the fact I’ve done so. It might make him or her work harder but it should be more immediate and natural.

The second technique I shall call ‘narrative drift‘, because I’m pretentious like that and I like coining ersatz-academic terminology. Within a single section, the narrative changes tense and perspective so that the past and the present elide together. It’s the sort of glissando technique that one could overuse, but seems to work for occasional effect.

Since I’ve been suffering from sub-flu on my day off, it could just be that I’m delirious and delusional, of course!

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Days at the seaside…

On another note entirely, my friend here in East Anglia, known to the world as Badger, has just put three stories up on Amazon. I’ve no idea what they’re like as I haven’t read them, so this is in no way an endorsement but I thought I’d mention it anyway. Just click on the image below…

Anyway, here’s that section:

That and the sand, of course…  Fine, white, crystalline, it had a way of making sure that you never forgot it.  It got everywhere, in your eyes and mouth, in your picnic box and Thermos flask.  And once you returned home, you’d find kilos of it in your clothes and shoes, in your ears and hair and in the space between your toes.  When the tide retreated, it left behind hectare upon hectare of warm, damp sand, ideal for writing messages to the sky, for making sandcastles and sculptures and entombing your parents inside silica sarcophagi. You had to be careful, though.  The tide crept back in swiftly, washing everything away.  And then the writing and monuments were gone, as though they’d never existed.  

Sandriina Tarrinavskova, resident of Compartment 45J-1, swears that the sand she finds in her backpack must have come from that beach on the last occasion that she visitied, twenty and more years ago.  After all, how else could it have got there?  It makes her a little melancholy, thinking about how her daughters, Tiili-Ruusa and Tuuli-Anna, have missed out on those days at the seaside.

Silicon dioxide, tiny particles of rock, worn away by the ocean…  Sandriina recalls her science mistress at the Seminary in Tarrinstøy digressing during a lesson on organic chemistry.  She’d been explaining how carbon provided the building blocks of all life on earth.  And then she began talking about silicon and the possibility of its replacing carbon in this capacity.  A tetravalent metalloid, capable of bonding with oxygen and forming polymers, possessing a degree of handedness, it isn’t impossible.  Outside, a black cloud covers up the sun, casting them into darkness.  Imagine the lifeforms that might result, she whispers, gleaming, hewn from stone, pitiless – like our very own trolls, returned to life.  It grows cold inside and the girls shiver.  The sandman cometh…  ‘Stop it, mamma,’ Tuuli-Anna cries. 

All text and images © PSR 2015, except image of book cover © Ian Rowbotham 2015

Group Think

31 May

Ten years ago, when first I moved to the East Anglian town in which I now live, I joined a recently formed writing group. I stayed for five years, until the group began to run out of steam. This month, another former member and I started up a new group. The time seemed right. One never knows whether these enterprises will achieve take-off or not, but its beginnings have been quite promising. There’s a good mix of experience, the members all having been published or having won competitions at some point in their careers. From my point of view, it’s a partial remedy to ‘writing in a vacuum’, that experience of working for years on a project, no part of which anyone else has seen, apart from the snippets that I’ve shared here with my five readers…

A fractured view

I think the fractured approach to long projects that I’ve developed over the last decade might have caused some consternation among the new members. In essence, I weave together a number of threads, each of which throws light on the others until the entire fabric of the narrative becomes clear. It’s not for everyone… ‘I’m not sure where this heading’ one comment ran. Well, it could be that my recent style takes some getting used to or that my latest project is unreadable rubbish! Clearly, I like to think that it’s the former but you can never be sure with your own work, can you? In any case, having put almost three years’ worth of effort in, I have no choice but to see it through.

Here’s what the soundtrack to my writing technique might sound like (yes, it’s called ‘Fracture’):

And here’s another little recent extract, addressed to the point!

Consider my Anti-Story, then.  You may take the conspiratorial, Anti-Stratfordian view of it if you wish.  I can sympathise.  I know something about disputed authorship myself.  You point to the material facts of my life, such as they are – the cramped, low-rent accommodation, the rota of unskilled and temporary manual occupations, the social strata in which I’ve moved – and attribute my story to someone else.  Even a fragmented, non-sequential account such as this, you suggest, implies a certain level of education.  You scour the manuscript for your bargain-basement Bacon, that discount-store Earl of Derby.  Iivo-Jaan Knuutssendaal, Tarrin Olavssens, Jaako Noorii, the Rosi-Ikon, the Eegnatjaans, Pappajuul… you discover a host of potential candidates, eager to put themselves forward. And then there’s the matter of my own name.  Peettruusens, Pettroesaunus, Petersen… I can’t even spell that with anything approaching consistency, you argue, so how could I have possibly authored such a monograph?  And what are the names of the cities and countries in which I claim to have lived?  What evidence can I show of my existence?  I have no answer.  There is only the text… 

All words and images © PSR 2015 

80,000 Words

19 Mar

Today, I reached the 80,000-word mark of my work-in-progress. That’s a milestone of sorts, I think. Something resembling a book is beginning to emerge. The question remains, though – will it be any good?

My memory is hopeless. I think that it was Alain de Botton who wrote about the frustrations of a year spent working on a novel and not knowing whether it’ll be any good until all of that effort has been expended. He used a great metaphor to explain it, which I’ve forgotten, of course… Clearly this anecdote would work a little better if I could remember any of its details, but you get the picture. And when writing has to fit in around working to pay the bills and being a single dad, you can multiply the length of the process by a factor of three or four. That’s a long time to wait until finding out if your pistol was firing blanks.

The bitter experience of seven years spent on a manuscript that didn’t work out, time taken up by music journalism and writing a biography, the birth of my children – all of these things and more meant that I abandoned long form fiction for the better part of half a decade. Regular readers will know that my last novel took me six years to complete. And so it feels good to be this far advanced on another full-length project.

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One of the images featured in the manuscript

I’ve placed a few short extracts on this blog. There are two extracts in Jamboree Bag, the sampler of my work available in paperback on Lulu. Other than that, I’ve not shown a word to anyone over the year and a half that I’ve been working on it. That is until a few weeks ago when I gave my friend, Rachel some 60,000 words to read. At the weekend, she got back to me about it. She’d enjoyed what she read but wasn’t keen on the way that the manuscript jumped between narratives. That just seems to be the way that I write these days. It’s how my last novel was structured. I enjoy the jumble of tumbling narrative streams. It feels to me a truer reflection of the real world, somehow. And Rachel coined a new term, for which I’m truly grateful.

So I now have 80,000 words and no real idea yet as to whether they’ve been wasted or not. In a sense, I know that they’ll not have been. Everything that you write adds experience and if you reflect properly on what worked and what didn’t, you’ll move forward as a writer. Still, it’s scant compensation for having spent years on what has turned out to be one big writing exercise. Ah, well… In the meantime, I’m going to leave you with the offending passage about a group of warrior-monks, origin of the term, ‘characteristic Paulisms’.

The Knights went to great lengths, then, to protect their rkn knowledge, to keep outsiders in darkness, knowing that otherwise it must prove the death knell for their order, consigning it to the knacker. The Brothers subscribed to a branch of Gnosticism, known to them as ‘Knostikismis’.  Others are known to have knelt down with them (King Knut and Joseph Knecht, Evel Kneivel and K-9, among others). A tightly-knit brotherhood, then, kneeling before the altar, wielding the ceremonial knives. 

Know and Zen, knaves travelled forth seeking knowingness, dressed in knickerbockers, hailing from Knightsbridge and Kniigsbørg. Resting a while upon a knoll, taking knick-knacks from their knapsacks, until trembling, knock-kneed, approaching at last the Knights’ temple. Rapping upon the knocker. Know answer. Twisting uselessly the great brass knob (there’s a knack to it). Go away, knidiot. Knocking on the door now with knotted knuckles. Get knotted, knasshole. 

Knot a word, then, to lighten this blackness. Knothing. Knot even in knine-hundred-and kninety-knine years. Knever.  

All text and images © PSR 2014