& Zoë McLean
ZOE: I sense a recurring theme in a lot of your writing, of synchronicity, connectivity, the ‘butterfly effect’. To me it’s fascinating, all the ways in which we process things that we read or see or experience, how they become a part of us, change us … In your story 'The Quiet Stars' [from the collection even the butterfly must endure the storm], I got this sense of overlapping time, echoes of the past influencing the future – did you have this in mind whilst writing it?
JOHN: My interest in that story had nothing to do with past and present. Often it is more interesting to explore how people deal with the moment before an event – in this case a battle – an event that is perhaps suggested rather than described. I thought it would be a very dull story; somebody goes to war and they get killed, and this is not very interesting, and so I had this past story to describe the fears of the present, in that moment before they open fire.
ZOE: In your interview with the online journal Axon: Creative Explorations, you describe plot and character development as 'constricting, old-fashioned notions'.
JOHN: Yes. They are to my mind old-fashioned ideas. I’m not saying that you might not want to use plot but any idea about – and you hear this very often – a novel without a plot or without much plot is criticised, and I think, ‘Oh! Well, that sounds like an interesting book. I’ll go and look for it.’
ZOE: [laughs] Yes, I agree completely!
JOHN: Because in real life we don't have plots, or very rarely do we have something so shaped, like a story, so I don't feel it’s authentic – that anything I write should need to have a plot. If you look at what are considered great books of the last 100 years, you’d be pushed to find ones that had much in the way of plots. Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse – we go on a trip to a lighthouse; Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez – a dictator is all alone. These are not the points of the book. Or, as for character, look at Kafka. K goes to the castle – he doesn't have a first name, last name, doesn't have a family, a background, he’s not a character. Or in Samuel Beckett, a person can change his name during the story. So character gets to be misleading, and if that’s a dominant idea, that you’ve got to somehow build a character … I think fiction can go so much wider, there’s much much more. Kirsty Gunn, writing about fiction, mentioned something that struck me – she (quite rightly) criticised the chairperson of a competition, who had talked about a good story having a twist in the tale, which is a very old idea. Basically he was saying what a short story should do and should be like, and Kirsty Gunn said, ‘Don’t let’s talk about what it should do, let’s, if anything, talk about what it can do.’
And this is such a phenomenal area of our human experience that we can explore. Our minds go down, get to extraordinary places with extraordinary thoughts, which, as far as we know, animals don't do, but we can do this! So that’s where fiction has this huge, huge field to romp in; let’s not stay in a corner, hemmed in by should do this and should do that. And another thing which I don't really subscribe to is, ‘It should start like this’ – there’s an idea floating around (and this is partly why I wrote the story ‘Thirsty’ – rather ironically) that you’re supposed to begin with somebody in danger, or there’s a threat of violence, or a great need for something. A classic beginning for a short story is: ‘A shot rang out in the forest’ – well, I don't live that near a forest, I don't quite know what a shot sounds like, I don't know anybody who has been shot, or has shot somebody else – this doesn’t form part of my existence. Or of most people's experience in this part of the world, I would guess.
ZOE: I keep hearing a Kafka quote in my mind. My German friend translated it to me: ‘A cage went out in search of a bird.’
JOHN: I think liberty is the thing. These writers and authors – and what you were saying about Confingo squares very well with this … just let writers and authors do what they do. That doesn't mean what they produce is not controlled, doesn't mean it won’t be edited or even rejected. Indeed, before a piece of fiction is finished it must undergo a very strict, assiduous process of revision. But, to begin with, allow them …
ZOE: The flow?
JOHN: Yes. And another thing I think is very interesting is when fiction talks about itself. This is often something where critics in particular say, ‘Oh no, another author writing about a novel that he or she has written.’ Well, I find that quite interesting – if it’s well done, it can offer a dual perspective. Art has been doing this for well over a hundred years, looking at itself, and fiction will do this as well, it’s just one part of what it can do, if it wants to. I have difficulty with anything that says don't or do or should or shouldn’t, to the point that with ‘Thirsty’, I thought: ‘OK, I’ll try this, I won’t have him injured or dying or in hospital – perhaps I’ll have him hungry, no I’m not sure about that, I’ll have him thirsty, and see what I can make of that, just for fun.’ And that’s another thing about fiction – fun, enjoyment, to find your enjoyment and try to communicate that in your story, and that gets very lost sometimes. I was writing ‘Thirsty’, thinking this is all very silly, writing about this need, so I tried to make it as absurd as possible, to enjoy it – and who knows, maybe it will take a few people along with it who read it.
When you talk to your friends or colleagues, they’re not necessarily your audience, and you will get among them people who will say, ‘This is baffling. What are you doing? This is not my idea of …’ – and so on. I find it’s very important almost to ignore that, and to go your own way, because then you discover things.
ZOE: Your recent work explores the convergence of different art forms and cross-discipline performances. Do you think you have a predominant sense?
JOHN: Maybe sight. Sight followed by hearing. I’m very interested in art, and very moved by music, these accompany everything – in fact, I even find myself thinking, ‘Shall I write another story which includes a reference to art?’ when so much of what I write is concerned with art in some way. I’m not so concerned with plot and movement, and I’m quite interested in the look of things, so I’ll talk about and describe the look of things.
ZOE: In the Axon interview, Jan Pulsford says: ‘There was a pentatonic melody hidden there – a sound from the earth only heard when you slow time down.’ And that made me think of words, and how they can slow down time, stretch perception over a moment or a scene …
JOHN: The slowing is very interesting to me as well, because something else you continually hear is, ‘It’s a page-turner’, and of course one of the pleasures of reading sometimes is that you want to carry on, but another pleasure, for me personally, is in savouring. Page-turners tend to be very plot-driven, and what is easily lost along the way – sacrificed, you could say – is the language something is written in. As a reader, if I come to a point where I’ve just read something extraordinary, I put the book down, and I think, ‘That is so wonderful, tomorrow I’ll come back and read that sentence again,’ and the next day I’ll continue. A lot of the time – in both reading and writing – I’m trying to slow down the whole thing, so that what really matters is the language and how it’s expressed, and that what I'm saying is noticed and enjoyed, so I will slow it down, and that has a lot to do with the form. There are many ways you can slow things down. I don’t know if you know Clarice Lispector? Wonderful author, she was writing in the last century, she slows things down by saying things which almost break up the way it’s going and you think, ‘Wait a minute ...’ – then you look at it again and it’s the very opposite of a page-turner, you can’t turn the page because you’re stumbling on something, which she’s deliberately put there, and I like that.
ZOE: That’s exactly what I experience with your writing! Your use of rhythm is really affecting, two lines into ‘Springtime’ and I felt the speed of my brain physically shift, and the tone of voice that was materialising in my head, it felt literally like I was stumbling over something, taking two steps forward, one step back – I don’t even know how, the lines are so simple, but there was a definite, preconscious shift.
JOHN: Well, it’s broken up. This also has to do with reading out loud, it reflects my thought process. One of the alternatives to plot is a much more modern idea that we have – association. The problem, or the difficulty, is we all have different associations, so you’ve got to try to make your associations convincing enough for the reader that they will go along with them. It’s not getting a person from A to B, but getting them to draw a line between the two. So perhaps you as a reader thought, ‘It doesn’t quite connect in the way I’d expect,’ or you asked yourself, ‘How does it connect?’ And that process allows the slowing, and you then have the freedom to ask, ‘Well, what does it do for me?’ – and you can go off on your own associations.
ZOE: You mentioned the way you write reflects the workings of your mind – fragments and parallels seem to be a recurring theme – do you also get inspiration in snippets of conversation or in something you might read over someone’s shoulder?
JOHN: Well, anything could spur a story, including that – someone in the bus queue might say, ‘Oh, I buried my second husband too,’ and that could undoubtedly bring about some story or another. But, on the whole, it could be anything: something somebody says, something on the radio, in the newspaper, something you remember which alters its significance for some reason, or it might be to do with fiction itself. Two of the Confingo pieces are related to fiction, as it happens. One [‘Dove Holes’] contains someone writing fiction – and ‘Summertime’ links to something else that I’d read and I thought, ‘I’d like to see if I can add something to that’. ‘Thirsty’, as I’ve explained, is about reading what you’re ‘supposed’ to write about so, oddly enough, it may even be an old-fashioned story. The things I’ve written in the last few weeks have been based on events people have told me about, and I got to the point where I thought, ‘Well, I’d like to write this down in my own way, with my own point of view’. But I wouldn’t rule anything out, nothing, and in fact I think one of the most important things is to be open to …
JOHN: Everything, because you don’t know where the inspiration might be coming from. The most recent piece of fiction I wrote started from an umbrella stand. You also have your inner sense, your own sense – you should pay attention to this – of knowing when something is good. I had one story which took ten years to find a publisher. I knew it was a good story, and after ten years somebody came along and they paid me well for it.
ZOE: ‘we are all on a continuum. on the train line of literature.’ [‘Springtime’] – I liked that: when you’re combining the different elements, the performance is part of the appeal, the writer's ability to weave the threads further outward.
JOHN: Yes, and the other part of that line is from readers to authors – in a sense there is no distinction, authors have to read a lot, otherwise what are they doing? Sometimes I run out of things to read, and I think, ‘What would really interest me?’ And then I think, ‘Oh well, I’ll write it myself.’
ZOE: [laughs] Yes! I think that’s a big key to successful creativity, in all sorts of fields: if you crave or desire something that doesn’t exist, but you want to hear it, feel it, see it, touch it, whatever, the chances are you’re on to something, and in creating that, other people will think, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t even know I wanted that! But I’ll have it …’ And you have a chance to create something unique and desirable.
JOHN: Great answer, write that down as my words.
ZOE: Do you write, or have you written, poetry?
JOHN: I’ve no experience of it, I don’t see myself as writing poetry, although I now write things which look like poetry, and that’s confusing to people. An American magazine took something last year and they put it in their poetry section... People do sometimes talk of how close the short stories are to poetry. You talked about starting points, and another very important one is to find the poetry, and I think that’s very difficult, and if you don’t find it, it won’t work. Long ago, when there were no computers and only typewriters, you had to be continually whiting out your mistakes and getting more paper, you had to focus more on your first sentence, your beginning, until you felt really sure and confident that that was how it began. Otherwise you’d be involved in a huge amount of work and paper, and I think I’m quite fortunate in a way – because I’ve been through that process. It’s a lot easier now, you don’t have to try so hard – you think you don't – but actually that doesn’t work so well, you have to get things as you want them to be right at the beginning, and that’s a poem.
ZOE: I agree, I was very lucky also, with where I went to college. We weren’t allowed to touch computers for the first six months, even though all graphic designers now work on computers. They wanted to reinforce our ability and the understanding that comes with doing things in the real world, without ‘Apple-z’ or auto-correct, and I think that’s the downfall of loads of things nowadays, this notion that, ‘Oh, I can just go back and do it later’ – but you can’t, it’s a false confidence, you can’t go back and make the foundations stronger, and it’s a such a bad work ethic: we’re building with bad bricks.
JOHN: Once you’ve written something down, although you can delete it or change it, that thing you originally wrote is somehow still there.
ZOE: That reminds me of something someone showed me once in an old painting – a ghost of a subject who had been there and then painted out, but the fact that he had been there at all had a permanent impact on the whole space around it, like a ripple effect.
JOHN: Yes, and also, if you go back in time, there’s an aesthetic element to writing. I mentioned Gabriel García Márquez – well, also of that time you have Julio Cortázar, and you take the first sentence of something he has written and you are spellbound. Nowadays, go on the internet and read the first sentence, and you have to trawl before you find something comparable. I think as a reader I always seek that – and as a writer, try to aspire to it myself.
ZOE: When you lived in Germany, you worked for Greenpeace for a number of years. Is that something close to your heart?
JOHN: Yes. I’ve always been interested in the environment, in ecology. Like all these movements in the sixties – to do with racism, sexism, environmentalism – it helps my understanding of the world, and I think in my lifetime it has been a very important issue. It is perhaps becoming less important now, but I think it was right that it should have been given the importance it has, so I was always very glad to be in an organisation which radically and forcefully represented this view, and tried very hard and had so many great people working for it. The other thing that just happened to connect with it – I was the translator, and everything I’ve done in my adult life has been connected with language, it’s a thread that runs through.
ZOE: Do you think that the sort of things you came across during that time have influenced your writing? I know everything influences in some way, but would you say you try to incorporate those big important themes as things you want to communicate through your writing?
JOHN: I don’t know if I have done really, I’m wary of issues: if an issue comes up in a story, it’s very easy for the issue to then push you or even dictate what you then write, so you lose the story, it doesn't work.
ZOE: We got through all my questions.