& Zoë McLean
ZOE: So, conveying the depth and breadth of an epic in 150 words: can every situation potentially yield an epic story?
DAVID: That's an interesting one, because sometimes when you write really tiny stories like I do, you make every small idea into a short piece of fiction, and you do sometimes wonder if it could have been a novel, if you've thrown it away. You've developed a character, a setting, a little story arc of where they go and you do sometimes wonder if it could have been something bigger.
ZOE: Would you ever think of developing your short stories into novels?
DAVID: I've not done that exactly, but I've got a couple of stories that exist as a 1,000-word story and also as 150 words. I've generally not published the long version, but it lies there underneath, hidden away. There's an interesting one called Uncle Leonard and it's a tiny story about this man who's older – he hasn't got a girlfriend, he's about 60 and it's all a bit sad, and it just tells of that really. But the long version tells you all about how he deals in dope, how he'd been going out with this girl and got her pregnant and she'd had an abortion – there's all this massive back story about what he does, all this information that I've chipped away and got rid of. So I don't know whether that helps or not but it's common, that I have a lot of detail and get rid of it.
ZOE: So it is that way round. When I read your work, it makes me see whole big stories in everyday situations, passing interactions. It's nice to have that absence – as a reader you get to be a lot more subjective with it, link your own experiences to the little bits of information you give.
DAVID: Yeah, you're aiming for it to be enigmatic, and for people to close the gap like you say.
ZOE: If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
DAVID: I'd rather have been a musician, to be honest. You find a lot of writers are frustrated musicians – they start out with bands that don't work out and write lyrics... But then you get a bit older and think being in a band is so difficult – arranging rehearsals, dragging drums upstairs. You think, 'God, it would be easier just to say what I want to say by writing a story or books.' Even a big poetry star like Simon Armitage was in a band originally.
ZOE: But you still do music as well?
DAVID: Yeah, a little bit, but we've done it as kind of a joke. Ideally, if I wasn't a writer, I'd like to be some kind of musician.
ZOE: One reviewer said your stories create a 'deliriously lonely, lovely world'. When you create a character, do you do so with an awareness of such a world? Does it exist somewhere in your mind first?
DAVID: I tend to work with characters who are really detached from real life, and they have a rich interior life – they're not engaged properly in real life. I tend to use characters who are a bit on the edges, a bit separate from the world, or where maybe they're not separate but for them the world is weird, and that makes for some kind of separation. I don't think there are many characters who are just straightforward: they're all doing odd things or thinking odd thoughts, and coming to strange conclusions and theories about the world that maybe aren't true, but they're true to them, so they have their own logic within their heads and within the story.
ZOE: And do you relate to that? Is that where it comes from?
DAVID: You sit where we're sitting now, watching all different types of people walking up to the station. They've all got their own thoughts that are completely absorbing them, their own concerns, and they're not really in the present walking up the concourse and thinking about what's going on. You start to wonder where they actually are. People who perhaps don't feel they fit in that well interest me too. The least interesting people are probably the successful ones who are very socially adept, very good at everything, and it's very clear what motivates them every day. You think, 'Well, is there any interest in telling stories about them?' It's more interesting to tell stories about people who have to get up every day and do some awful job, or have a meaningless job or even no job, and you think, 'Well, what keeps them going?'
ZOE: 'I keep a ball of tissue under my armpit and drop shreds of it into her food to keep her loyal.' Does that usually work?
DAVID: That's a spell – a modern spell from a book of witchcraft. I think I've lost the book, but I had this great one of spells and witchcraft, from the '50s or '60s I think, full of spells on how to stop a woman having an affair with your husband, for example: you take one of his shoes, put a dead mouse in it, cover it with wax, then you bury it on a hillside at four o'clock in the morning.
ZOE: Do you have a story about that? You should. That whole thing could be a collection of short stories.
DAVID: Well, the thing about taking a tissue from someone, which will have a lot of saliva or sweat in it, and putting it in their drinks is one of those. You thought I just made this stuff up, didn't you?
ZOE: No, I was sure they came from somewhere – I was curious as to where...
DAVID: I know that one because it's a story that's coming up – I'm working on a graphic novel and that one is part of it, so the artist Dan Berry is busy drawing it at the moment, drawing the conversation in the cafe that the two are having about... about measuring their relationship, I think. So there's a scene where he drops the thing in her tea.
ZOE: These things are all just tweaking your mind into having that direction, having that motivation to go a particular way.
DAVID: Yeah, because if someone's interested in you enough to steal a bit of your hair, go up a mountainside, put it in urine, bury it and dance around, you'd probably think, 'Well, she must be quite interested in me, I might give it a go...' You know, it's quite a bit of commitment, isn't it? I'm surprised there isn't a bestseller.
ZOE: Okay, weird one: casu marzu is a traditional Sardinian delicacy, a sheep's milk cheese notable for containing live insect larvae, and apparently they can jump up to five inches from the cheese itself.
DAVID: So... it has live insect larvae in it?
ZOE: The larvae work their way through the cheese, and the way they eat it decomposes it, makes it really creamy – but when people eat it, it's still got the larvae in it, they might even jump right out of it! How do you feel about status delicacies?
DAVID: Well, I'm not mad on that idea of eating live larvae, but I do eat oysters, and they're live, aren't they? Oysters don't protest that much, though – but something that's wriggling out of cheese... I'd worry. But then again, cheese is full of microscopic creatures eating it, so larvae are just slightly bigger, aren't they?
ZOE: You've already half-answered this, but I want to ask you in more depth: Do you usually remember where your stories come from, or are they as much amalgamated responses to what you see every day?
DAVID: Yeah, I usually remember where they are, and often can tell – if I'm doing a live reading, often I'll tell the story about where the story comes from, which can be more interesting than the actual story. Because the story becomes something completely different in the end and sometimes where it comes from is more interesting. And sometimes you can have the idea for the story for years – literally years – and you keep working at it and working at it and you can never get it right. I had a story – and I did finish it in the end – the story was based on some paint. I bought a box of acrylic paints for my daughter from WHSmith and they all had names on the paint – the yellow was called Buttercup and the green was called Verdigris or something like that, but the black was called The Silence of Death!
ZOE: [laughs] Bit intense...
DAVID: I know! And that's what the black was called, and I couldn't believe they'd called it that, so I wrote it down in my notebook but it took ages to get the story about it, because the first idea I had about it was a priest coming in to complain: the priest had bought the paints, was working with them, got to use the black and thought, 'I can't have this because death is the opening to a new world! It's not silent, it's full of everything!' – and he complained to WHSmith. But that one didn't work, I put that one to one side, and it ended up in a book of mine called Aromabingo – the first story in it, called Art Movement, ends up with a Christian woman who does an Art class with a man and she talks about 'the silence of death' and they spread paint all over each other in a sensual way... So that's where it ended up. I don't know if WHSmith are still doing it – it's a peculiar thing to come up with.
ZOE: And for kids...
DAVID: Yeah, for kids! I had it in a box with loads of things I used to keep that gave me ideas for stories, like artefacts, but I haven't got the tube of paint any more. I wish I had.
ZOE: And is that how it works? So you have something and you'll sit with it for a while...
DAVID: Yeah, it takes a long time sometimes – you'll think, 'Right, I'm going to sit down and write some stories, I'll go back to something I've had for a while and see if I can do it.' You try again, you keep trying, and you get lots of different versions. You'll swap the point of view around, change it, and eventually you're happy with it. I've got a T-shirt at home that inspired a story called Uchafu – it's in Sawn-off Tales. It's about a bloke who has this Diesel T-shirt on, it has the word uchafu on the back, and the waiter comes up to the guy and says, 'Here's your bill, Mr Filthy Bastard.' That's what it means on the back of the T-shirt in Swahili: 'Filthy bastard' or 'He who pimps for a slave-owner'!
ZOE: That's what's on the back of your T-shirt?
DAVID: Yeah! So the Diesel people are putting these swear words in Swahili on the back of T-shirts for a laugh, and nobody knows. I've still got that.
ZOE: Do you think about what your audience wants when you sit down to write?
DAVID: For a person who doesn't make art, or doesn't write or anything like that, you would say to them, 'Well, how would you go about writing a book that was popular?' And they'd say, 'Well, first of all, you've got to plan it all out, work out who your market is, what sells, decide exactly what you want to say, plot it all out – how many chapters, what's going to happen in every chapter... and then just write it!' It sounds sensible, straightforward: 'How are we going to be successful and do something brilliant?' 'Let's write a strategy!' And it just doesn't work for art, does it? If you think about some of the biggest innovations, something like Apple, they never tested out whether people wanted an iPod or anything like that. They never even asked – they just said, 'This is what we're going to do.' And if they'd gone to the market and asked people, 'Do you want to carry around a thing in your pocket that plays thousands of songs and does all of these weird things?', people would have looked at them and said, 'No. Why would I want that?’ And they would never have developed it.
ZOE: Okay, so this just popped on the radio before you arrived and I thought it was a good question. 'What does a messed-up person do when they find the right person?' Do you believe we have to be completely self-accepting and self-loving to be successful in love?
DAVID: To be self...?
ZOE: Well, there's always this thing of 'you have to love yourself before anyone else can love you' – but for the poor messed-up person, or the people in your stories who are a bit confused by everything, do you think they'll ever be successful in love?
DAVID: Well, I think people who are messed up can find people who want to be with them for a long time, as friends or as lovers, because I think they're interesting – people who are messed up – and I think it's more interesting to have flaws than not have flaws. And the person who's completely sorted – you do see these people who are sort of super-evolved and they do yoga and mindfulness and they're calm, have taken off all the corners of themselves, and even the way they sit will be very serene. And, I don't know, there's maybe something unnatural? About these alien people who've worked out exactly how to live as a human being, and all of a sudden we're kind of encouraged to empty our minds of everything, live in the present, not worry. But I'm worrying what's going to happen tomorrow, and it might be useful to worry about what's going to happen tomorrow, you might do a better job if you worry about it! So yeah, I prefer people who are a bit messed up. I think people who are messed up are more interesting – and also, there's a job to be done!
ZOE: When or why did you first begin to experiment with short fiction?
DAVID: Well, I was writing a novel at the time, which did get published in the end, but that's what I was working on, and somebody with a website who was publishing 150-word stories asked me to contribute some, and I did a few and quite liked it. I liked the sense of completion in finishing them, and the sense of packing things in. Working on a novel is so frustrating – it just goes on forever. It's like people who decide they're going to build a boat in their garage, and they go every weekend and build it but they never finish it ever and then they just die. That's what writing a novel's like. And then you almost don't want to finish it because you think, 'God, if I ever finish this boat, for one I'm going to have to move it into the sea, and then it might not float!' So you'd rather just spend every weekend shaving and planing it and making it nice, painting it... People say, 'How's the boat coming on?' and you say, 'Oh, I had a problem with this, I had a problem with that...' And you can just build it forever. That's what novels are like, for people who haven't had any published. And so when I got these short stories, it was like building tiny little boats that you have to make work and float within a few hours, and you send them all out there in a little flotilla. It's nice.
ZOE: I like that. And the completion.
DAVID: And the completion. So that's how I got into it. And, for some reason, there weren't many people doing it at the time. Still not really, who are publishing books. There's me, Tania Hershman, Dave Eggers, Etgar Keret. There's a few people doing that sort of thing, but not many.
ZOE: To me, it seems like the most logical place for writing. Because we're such an 'instant' society. I end up reading about four articles at once, a third of each of them, and then I'm on to something else. Which is why I get a sense of completion when I read one of your short stories.
DAVID: Well, I tend to read novels!
ZOE: What are you reading at the moment?
DAVID: I'm reading John McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. It came out about ten years ago, it's really good. I get more out of novels somehow than I do out of reading short fiction.
ZOE: So you like to get it out fast but take it in slowly...
DAVID: Yeah. It's interesting with the short stuff, there's a really big thing now for microfilms. They come from China, and because they watch everything on their mobile devices, they love watching short films – short from three minutes up to 20, 40 maybe. And they're all viewed on your phone. Some comedy, slapstick things, all sorts. It's a real cultural phenomenon. So that's kind of a bit like flash fiction, and the idea that this could move to film – things like Vine, they're only five seconds, so they're very short. There's the rise of GIFs as a thing people like to look at.
ZOE: The biggest thing I get out of reading your stories is the depth it can add to inanimate objects, or to the guy walking down the road or lurking in a doorway. I spent a couple of days reading a lot of Sawn-off Tales on the bus to and from town, and they started to come alive – suddenly that guy in the doorway became a page and the guy with the sign around his neck and the discarded bag on the bench...
DAVID: You never really know, as an artist or a writer, what’s the best thing to do. Things like film-making, it's even more of an issue because you can spend millions on it and you never really know what’s going to work... and all the people who’ve been in the business for years, even they don’t know, nobody has a clue what’s going to interest people…
ZOE: So I guess in the end it just has to really interest you.
DAVID: Well, I guess in the end it has to, because if it doesn’t interest you... I've written a couple of novels and I abandoned them because I got bored, and I think if I’m bored with it, what are the chances of the reader being interested? I think one of the worst bits of advice I ever had was from another writer: 'Whatever you do, David, always finish everything you start.'
ZOE: I get that loads! I always want to think it’s bad advice… but then I think maybe I’m just being lazy.
DAVID: Well, at the time, I was writing a novel and I was about three-quarters of the way through, and I kept picking it up and I could hear that voice in my mind going [adopts commanding voice]: 'Whatever you do, David, always finish everything!' And I looked at it and I thought, 'I’ll finish it' – and it was a waste of time and it was no better, so I don’t agree with that. Leave lots of things unfinished, all over the place.
ZOE: And did you do anything with it, in the end?
DAVID: No. I gave it to a few people to read, and we talked about it and tried to think of ways to make it work, but in the end it still wasn’t working, and that’s the problem with novels, you can’t fix them like you can a short story. They’re too big, you can’t just quickly... a short story you can completely rewrite, change it, move things around, make it work, but a novel’s just too big structurally. Once you take one bit out... it’s like trying to take a bit out of a building, because some bits of the novel are load-bearing. So you might think, 'Well, this scene isn’t working very well but if I take it out, this other scene falls down, and that’s a good scene' – then the whole thing just becomes untenable.
I always think that microfiction is like really small machinery, you can see all the parts, can see what it’s doing and just tinker with it and change it, whereas with a novel it’s just like a giant machine and you have no idea how this bit’s moving that or what that screw’s relationship is to that mechanism over there, and you just can’t take it apart... like that clock in Longitude, you’ve created a monster, even things you don’t understand. But I am working on a novel at the minute...
ZOE: And how’s that going?
DAVID: Well, I’m liking it, and that’s the main thing, if I’m liking it. It's just about my life, things that happened to me, and I’m quite enjoying that for a change, just writing things that are about me…I suppose another thing you have to remember is only about 10 per cent or 15 per cent of what you produce is ever going to get published, and it’s hard to think like that but it’s probably true. I know that David Shrigley says he throws away 75 per cent of what he makes at home.
ZOE: Have you ever tried stream-of-consciousness writing?
DAVID: I find it useful sometimes – say I’m trying to find a character in a longer story, and they might get up in the morning and I’ll say, 'Okay, so what are you going to do?' It’s surprising what you can come up with. But I don’t usually start with a blank page, I’ve always got some kind of idea somewhere, a sort of anchor for it.
One of the worst things about novel-writing – if you open up your document, it opens up on the first page, so you immediately start rewriting the first line, and you do that over and over again, every time you open it up. You just have to deliberately open up on the second page and not allow yourself to look. Some writers have a set time every day – they’ll put themselves on a timer and when the time is up, that’s it, they have to stop, even if they’re in the middle of a sentence: 'He reached up to the cupboard and took down a…' And they say that gives them better rhythm.
ZOE: Do you do that?
DAVID: No, not really. I do write really, really rough – you know, unpunctuated and badly spelt – and then go back to it, but if I stopped I would have to reach the end of a sentence, I would want to know what he took down from the cupboard.