As a performance poet you delight in words, rhythm, sound and the visual pictures words can make on a page so why a novel in numbers?
Interesting, I hadn’t thought about that as a contrast – I think maybe I’ve got to the stage where I feel too comfortable with doing things that are lyrical and rhythmic, and that’s a bad thing – it can make writing really lazy. That may have pushed me. The main reasons though were to do with wanting to see what was possible in taking the author, and the shackles of language, out of the text and free the characters – and readers. That, and just wanting to find new ways of telling stories, to see what’s possible. I am in love with the conceptual art of the 1980s and 1990s, with the way people like Tracey Emin made people question what art is. I think we’re too comfortable with our idea of how stories are constructed, with how we represent both our own lives and those of others to ourselves. I wanted to ask why we assume that a satisfying emotional arc can only be conveyed in a book through words. Because we shouldn’t assume. And as writers it’s almost criminal to let assumptions go unchallenged.
On early reading, evie and guy seems leaves a lot of space. My reaction to that as a reader was to fill it with my own ideas and interpretations. Was that your intention?
Yes, that’s absolutely it. I wanted readers to bring Evie and Guy to life, both individually and separately, to let their lives grow from the page any way they wanted.
Comprehending one life through such a unique lens is a challenge, but two, and their interwoven history must have been a complex undertaking. Can you talk a little about the creative process?
Ooh, now that’s a tricky ask, and I feel really conflicted. Not because I don’t like talking about it – I could waffle on forever – but because I am wary of telling readers how to read it. Not just wary, that’s sort of the whole point of the book, not pointing readers in one direction or another. Having gotten that out of the way…
Having decided what numbers I’d use (which in itself took two years, during which time I experimented with variations on the notion of “digital”, ditched only when I had a moment of inspiration involving Lacan and the fall from jouissance into language, and how listing moments of solitary sensual pleasure might offer a ladder back out of language), my first step was to get hold of a virtual calendar. What I didn’t want to do was just put down random days and dates. I wanted to take readers seriously. It was very important to me that if I was serious about self-publishing being the home of innovation, I needed to expect readers to take me seriously in return, to scour my numbers for meaning and clues to my characters’ lives then I needed to respect them for it. I didn’t want them picking holes in my timelines because I hadn’t been bothered to check when Easter was for example, or to check my weekdays from my weekends.
So with what was to become a very well-thumbed perpetual calendar and a list of Easter dates by my side my next step was to write out the whole of their lives, in broad brushstrokes at first, creating narrative arcs that had their own internal logic and then the points at which they intersect and weave together and unravel and weave back. At that stage I started extrapolating into numbers, having first done some background research and taken steps to ensure verisimilitude such as plotting out with the virtual calendar a lifetime of menstrual cycles for Evie and then both the baseline and the evolving physiological and psychological rhythms of her sexuality within those cycles. At this point I found myself creating incredibly detailed lives for them, because every single instance had to be “real” (to me, at least, even though readers may find wholly different scenarios for each). It had a very disorienting effect compared to writing other novels – the lack of any truncation or elongation of time was almost hypnotic. I hope very much it induces something similar in the reader – a mix of infuriation and intrigue that they can’t drill down or skip over but everything happens at the same pace – that eventually turns almost into a trance, because it’s a fascinating thing to feel in relation to a book.
Could you see evie and guy interpreted in another art form? And if so, how much control would you want to retain?
I’d be happy to see people telling the characters’ stories in any way they wanted, but I think this book can only really exist in this form – though in a sense it exists in as many forms as there are readers. It’s like a musical score that comes alive in the performance. All books are like that of course, but books that use language less so, I’d like to think, because our brains are geared to cope with language, they have all sorts of shortcuts – and that can be constricting, make us lazy. This book has absolutely no meaning unless the reader “plays” it, works at it, makes it come alive – it has a recalcitrance, which I think is what I’m excited about. It does none of the work for you, and yet if you do the work, suddenly, out of nowhere it’s like these whole new worlds within worlds appear out of nowhere.
I’ve enjoyed your novels, watched your poetry and nodded at your articles on how broad and inclusive publishing could be. So I have to ask, what’s next?
All sorts of things! At the moment I’m putting the final touches to my first one man performance poetry show, Some of These Things are Beautiful. Poetry-wise, I’m also preparing for the Hammer and Tongue poetry slam final in May, for which I have to have two new poems ready to perform.
I’m also working frantically on NOTHING TO SAY (http://79ratpress.wordpress.com), an exhibition-like collection of poetry that will launch at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 8th before a week long show in Oxford. It’s built around collections by six poets that I’m editing and publishing, as well as a catalogue comprising what I think is some of the best poetry from a new generation of emerging poets. And, of course, it’s run more like an art exhibition than a publisher.
In terms of my own writing, I finally have a clear new project for a novel, which will take all my time after this summer – I plan to ditch everything except this, to see if I can do the whole single-minded thing. Writing evie and guy has been wonderful creatively – after three years of banging my head against a wall with it, it finally feels as though all the other ideas can come to the surface and have their space. The new novel will be my attempt to do the grand, sprawling epic, focusing (natch) on identity in cyberspace and post-communist Europe and on art galleries as places where the rules of physics do not apply. It will be set over the course of a single summer and echo Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam, Three Colours: Blue, and anything by David Mitchell or Murakami whilst being not like any of them. Characters/POVs include a homeless street poet, a reclusive installation artist (of course), a policewoman who escaped the massacre in Srebrenica and spends her nights as a dominatrix, a philanthropist who may not always have been so philanthropic, a group of private school kids home for the summer discovering that their parents were once part of something very sinister, an elderly novelist and women’s rights campaigner spiralling into dementia and probably many others all of whom may or may not have any connection with each other. The working title is Ninety Nine Nights of Urban Dogging.
I admire you for taking risks with what literature means, in all your work. Which writers do you think are producing the most exciting alternatives to the mainstream?
I recently took part in a project to come up with an alternative to the Granta list and contributed five names (http://workshyfop.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/best-of-young-british-writers-day-4-dan.html). That’s a good place to start. Performance poetry in general has some incredible talent – Kate Tempest recently won the Ted Hughes Award, so she’s probably not alternative anymore. Penny Goring is astounding and quite the most original voice writing today. Lucy Furlong does wonderful things with poetry and maps. Andrea Coates has yet to publish a novel but has a burning ambition to change the literary landscape that means I’m eagerly awaiting when she does – and in the meanwhile I am publishing an astonishing poem of hers for NOTHING TO SAY. All of the writers I’m publishing for NOTHING TO SAY, of course, are incredible – and very different from each other.
There’s very little risk taking by and large in contemporary literature. Certainly not in the mainstream, and very little among self-publishers. Alt Lit does some fun things with the internet, has a Murakami-ish mix of playful and despondent, but it’s not really risk-taking by and large. There seem to be precious few writers out there who want to leave the world a different place from how they found it. I find that rather disheartening. Small presses are a ray of glorious hope – from tiny experimental ones like Lazy Fascist, Philistine, and Civil Coping Mechanism to the likes of And Other Stories, Melville House, and Peirene who are introducing the public to exciting work in translation and novellas. But I’d like to see more writers wrestling with literary history, demanding that we question what stories can be, trying to free the human spirit through – or despite – language. Not necessarily showily, or sweepingly (take a writer like Adelle Stripe, the UK’s finest poet at the moment, whose work is shot through with subtle savagery), but desperately wanting to leave culture richer than they found it. There seems to be almost a disdain for anyone who dares to want to do that publicly (whilst there’s an almost universal approval for anyone who wants to sell lots of books). We’re too afraid to look like fools – and that’s the first step on the path to ruin.
You can see Dan perform live at Cheltenham on Wednesday
You can read evie and guy here.
Where to find Dan and his work:
my personal website – books, poetry, videos
(my raucous opinions)
my online playpit for 2012
(a literary project and publisher I run)
my YouTube channel – performance poetry
Last Man Out Of Eden
Songs from the Other Side of the Wall
(life:) razorblades included
The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes
Black Heart High –