‘I made Henry a destroyer so I could remain a dreamer.’
When Johnny Navarro decided on a publication date for his debut novel Kill Devil Delta, he couldn't have foreseen the result of the General Elections. Perfect timing.
Kill Devil Delta is a tribute to freedom of expression and the creative mind; it tells the uncompromising tale of Henry Douanier, a self-proclaimed "Salvation Artist" who after years of swimming against the grain of mainstream society starts preaching the message of "Feelism", making people ask themselves: "How much dreams cost? And can I still afford them?"
Johnny Navarro is one half of cult rock band Devilish Presley and a truly original new voice in literature. In an increasingly conservative publishing landscape in which traditional publishers and agencies shy away from anything challenging or different and prefer to sign safe Oxbridge graduates with an MA in creative writing they can market to death, it is essential that readers can turn to daring independent publishers and authors to find the raw literary diamonds that will entertain them, challenge them, stimulate their intellect and their imagination.
Kill Devil Delta is such a gem. It spans several decades, from the muddy fields of WWI to the Thames Estuary in 2027; its action moves from the South Essex town of Leigh-on-Sea (the Old Town in the book) to the run-down rented flats of London via France, Germany and numerous music venues around the country. Crucially, it joyously mixes genres and topics (memoirs, politics, music, social issues, history, sci-fi and dystopian) to create a thrilling epic journey unencumbered by the rules and conventions of traditional fiction writing.
KDD features Biba Fox's atmospheric illustrations.
Kill Devil Delta: what’s behind the title?
It comes from the Crowstone song Blues For The teenage Century Dead: “If you can’t find the devil, you’ll kill someone else instead.” It is about trying to find and destroy the enemy within. The Delta in the title refers to the Thames estuary.
KDD is a heady mix of history, music, politics, dystopian and dare I say it, memoirs. If you had to define it, how would you describe the book, and what kind of reader do you think it will appeal to?
I had no idea what type of book I was writing when I started; I was just doing it to keep from going insane. Much later, when it assumed some kind of shape, I happened to be reading a series of works based on the Faust legend, one of which was ‘Mephisto’ by Klaus Mann, described as a Roman à clef on the World Brain (Internet): ‘… a novel with a key about real life overlaid with a façade of fiction’. That is the perfect description of Kill Devil Delta. I have always believed that people who like my band (Devilish Presley) are folks who file their music alphabetically rather than by genre; this book is for the same people. Too many modern books read like they were written by a committee of publishers and editors frantically trying not to offend potential customers and desperate to fit in with the latest trend.
You are first and foremost a musician; when did you decide to sit down and write a novel? Could you take us through the writing process (if there was any?) ie: was there some kind of spark when you thought “I’m going to write a novel”, or have you written bits and pieces over time and then decided you had material for a book? When did you start writing the novel? What was your inspiration? How long has it taken you to complete the novel, how do you write (do you need silence, do you type or write longhand first, etc.?)
A series of events led me to a very bad place mentally, physically and figuratively. I started writing to try and save myself. The ‘spark’ was seeing a photograph of an old fisherman called Robert Johnson in the Leigh-on-Sea heritage centre which brought to mind Robert Johnson, the blues musician who famously sold his soul to the devil like Faust. I was well aware that some people say the blues arose ‘as the heart cry of an oppressed people’, and at that time I felt like I needed to play the blues.
The first draft was a series of mini-biographies about the fictional blues musicians I imagined living in the Old Town. This is why Henry’s book is called Blues For The Teenage Century Dead. It is crucial to understand the link between Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues and Crowstone’s Crowstone Blues and to realise Henry wasn’t selling his soul, he was getting a refund. My next inspiration came from a series of very vivid dreams I had following my dark night of the soul. These helped flesh out the characters in the story, which was called Deepsville at that time. I got a bit of a shock when I read a book of memoirs called Joscelyne’s Beach written by a local character called ‘Sonny’ Joscelyne, because it was full of the characters I had ‘seen’ previously in my dreams. From that moment on my book almost wrote itself. It has taken almost two and a half years to complete. I do like peace and quiet when I am typing which, as you yourself know, is almost impossible to find these days. I am very much a ‘bash it down and tart it up later’ kind of writer and musician because I came of age in the punk era.
What do you think are the main differences between song writing and novel writing? Do you find yourself working in different ways?
Novel writing is too much like hard work for my liking to be honest, and because I am very impatient, it has been a bit of a chore at times. The ‘bashing it all down’ and the ‘creative roll’ part is great; all the polishing, and yet more polishing not so. I always start a new song with a title; I have to have a title and my lyrics are written first before Jacqui (Johnny’s partner-in-crime in Devilish Presley and Crowstone – Ed) and I work on the music together. We work really fast, and if something isn’t working within ten minutes we drop it. In the studio we have Kevin Poirée to run things by, of course. So there were definitely times before Matt (Matt ArtPix, designer and typesetter on KDD – Ed) did the typesetting and you began the proofreading when I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew! I’d like thank you both publicly here, I couldn’t have done it without you.
Who is Henry Douanier, the anti-hero of your novel?
My evil twin in a parallel universe, an imaginary person in a true story.
It’s really interesting that you give us this flawed main character, and even though the narrator is biased against him, you really leave it to us to decide what has made him who he is and do what he does. Where do you place him/yourself in the debate of nature vs nurture? He has a supportive father but a terrible, cruel mother; he makes what could be seen as ‘bad’ choices in life but his nature (artistic, going against the grain, with a ‘bohemian’ soul…) also pitches him against mainstream society and he cannot fit in (I do feel for him). He is at the same time repulsed by and attracted to success and money; he has some mental health issues which he tries to contain; he is a victim of the greed that seems to have become a virtue and a sure sign of ‘success’ in our society and he is redeemed by his love of dogs, his relationship with Biba Fox, his hatred of hypocrisy – although he sometimes is guilty as charged – and his sheer bloody determination; his moral code is skewed…
He is flawed simply because he is a human being, what he calls ‘an unnatural animal’. His true (mother) nature is completely amoral and selfish; his father nurtured him with his socialist principles to be a more caring and sharing person. The unresolvable conflict in his soul led him ultimately to invent ‘Feelism’ as an imaginary solution. Who you pretend to be might be who you actually are. I made Henry a destroyer so I could remain a dreamer.
Who is the mysterious narrator?
I have no idea, but I do know he/she/it would find the words ‘Mystery’, ‘Myth’ and ‘Mystic’ equally offensive and dangerous. With your eyes closed in the silent depths of darkness you might find he/she/it hiding there… So be wary of that devil’s advocate.
You have woven Henry’s story with that of his ancestors and that of the area, Leigh-on-Sea (the Old Town in the book). History seems to be very important for you. According to you, what can history teach us or rather what can we learn from it?
I had to put him in that setting really; I was inspired by the Genius Loci (spirit of place) between the Crowstone and Hadleigh castle. History is interesting to me simply because people always assume our current position, the glorious present, is an absolute and only the past is made relative. It makes me laugh. People love facts these days, but they never seem aware that the conclusions they draw from those facts are often wrong. I don’t think most people are capable of learning from history really, any more than I think ‘children are our future’. The human race is too fucked up. All we really need to learn is how to love one another and how much is enough… Don’t hold your breath.
How much research have you done for this book, and how did you go about doing it?
A great deal actually and I did it by haunting second-hand bookshops! I just read everything I could find about the area and local history. I am a recently evicted Londoner, an outsider, so it was all new to me.
A lot of characters in the novel are based on real people you have encountered throughout your life. Are you prepared to hear from some of them if they pick up the book and recognise themselves?
If the easily offended are tempted to delve between the pages, an extreme sense of levity should be brought to bear. The only people I want to hear from are those ordering a copy. As for the rest, why didn’t I hear from them when I was down on my luck?
Your time on the alternative music scene – in London, around the country and abroad – seems to have been a really trying time, and yet, you’ve stuck to it and your genuine love of music and musicians really shines through the book. You are about to release a new album with your band Devilish Presley and you have a tour scheduled for November/October 2015. What does it mean to you to still be able to make music and how would you sum up your experience? Is there anything you would do differently if you had the chance?
I am glad you got the genuine love of music and musicians aspect. I do believe that all music is sacred, actually, and I feel incredibly lucky because our fans (for want of a better word) financed our new album with the Crowdfunder campaign. I’m like anyone else, I need to keep busy to stop me from dwelling on shit that is bad for me. I can’t help being creative, it comes out of my mood swings. Fortunately I have a small, but loyal, group of people who support what Devilish Presley does. When I am down in the dumps I feel that I have got nothing much back from music in terms of money and fame. But every good person I’ve met, and every single interesting experience I have had since I was fifteen has been connected with music… the Old Free Music. Je ne regrette rien!
The book comes with a 15-track CD from Crowstone, Henry’s band in the book. The songs are acoustic tracks full of dark, moody tales inspired by the sea and social injustice. I love the way songs mentioned in the book end up on the album, it really brings the story to life, mixing fiction and reality. I’ll have the same type of question about the illustrations in the book: they have been painted by Biba Fox, another character in the novel – really painted by your partner (and Devilish Presley member) Jacqui. Did she develop the images after having read the novel or did she get inspiration from discussing the book with you/working on the Crowstone songs?
Oscar Wilde was right when he said that “life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”, and of course mixing fiction with reality is a form of magic. The idea for the book came first, then the songs were recorded with Zac at Goldmasters in Leigh-on-Sea. Jacqui based her illustrations on both the songs and the book. Everything is connected. The lyrics on the new Devilish Presley album The Electric Ballroom were inspired by the book and the video for the single Devil Gate Drive will bring everything together. The video will contain the key to fully understanding the book.
There is a very strong social side to the book and a sense of real, visceral anger towards the ruling elites (politicians, landlords, property developers, music business executives, etc.) and the way they (and their beloved rampant commercialisation of pretty much everything) wreck the lives of “decent ordinary” people, from the meaningless slaughter of young men in WWI to Henry’s life-long struggle against poverty to the rise of the monstrous Sod Johnson. Have you always been socially and politically aware? Do you think it is important for artists (musicians, writers…) to be politically aware and use their work to protest against the state of society/the world? Do you think society needs these artists to go against the grain and offer an alternative vision?
I think we need to hear more from the losers, but that isn’t going to happen. I don’t know if artists can go against cultural policy in these days of Arts Council funding? Where are the outsiders in all this? I agree with Jean Genet, I am always on the side of the underdog but there are no bohemian drunken poet-thieves anymore, everyone has a job to lose. Society doesn’t need or want artists, only advertising. Perhaps it is a good thing that the World Brain is turning artists into digital peasants, after all it is only people with nothing to lose who will tell you the truth. The New Bohemians, what Henry calls the ‘Beaumatique Deepniks’, are all about concealment, not confrontation.
“Everything is political”, they say… Do you agree?
Politics is pigshit. Salvation is a personal matter, politics is show business for ugly people.
Towards the end of the book, the vivid way you describe the Mer-chavs in 2027 (idiotic, obese, vulgar and brash, their brains fried by technology, obsessed with cars and bling) in all their grotesque imbecility really scared me as I thought: this is already happening, all around us, I see them if I open my windows! Is there a way we could stop people from becoming obeying, shopping zombies without an ounce of free-thinking left in them?
I wanted to take back the word chav and apply it to the really vile element, the latter-day fake-tanned seaside Yuppies in their hideous four wheel drive land crushers. The Mer-chavs are the result of ‘the long 1980’s’ that started with Thatcher and which continue to stamp on human faces today. Henry Douanier believed that ‘only one in five people can think for themselves’ and if that is true, it means we are surrounded by 80% of the population who don’t. That is scary.
You clearly think that the internet is one of the enemies of society and you cleverly show the way it dumbs down discourse and information (especially with the hilarious INSTANTCRAP! Sections) and makes everyone a little bit more stupid. The internet is full of contradiction. It makes people unable to concentrate and think and seems to fry people’s brain; at the same time, it offers a lot of alternative opinion and angle on the news and relays information from around the world; it has become a tool for creative people to share their work and spread information, and yet file sharing and streaming is rapidly destroying the music industry and is preventing artists from earning a reasonable living from their work. Art is devalued. Do you think we will ever be able to find the right balance?
Ah! The opium of the people. The World Brain isn’t an enemy, any more than a television channel was an enemy. As always, it’s the vested interests working away behind the scenes furthering their own ends who are the enemy. I hear a lot about alternative opinions and news but I still don’t see much action. Armed with all that wonderful information you are still a victim unless you are fully prepared to challenge the people keeping you down. Otherwise you are just one of those silly cunts in a Guy Fawkes mask making a plastics manufacturer richer. The real problem for anti-social type like myself is that the World Brain brings me into contact with other people. I don’t believe real art can be devalued, any more than home taping killed music. I don’t care about making a living because paid work is not the source of my self-esteem.
KDD has made me laugh out loud several times. There is satire, dark comedy and wit in there – as well as some philosophical musings about the human condition. It paints quite a dark portrait of society and where it is heading, but humour is always round the corner. Do you think it is essential to manage to retain some sense of humour even in the most challenging situations?
Gallows humour yeah, you got that right Miss Gish! I hope everyone who reads it understands that. The universe may well turn out to be a shaggy dog story, but we the downtrodden souls should all try and be a bit nicer to each other as we wait for the punchline.
Later on in his life, Henry becomes some kind of high priest/guru of Feelism, some sort of religion which at last brings him fame and followers. Could you define what Feelism is all about and how you had the idea for it? Do you think it inevitable that someone like Henry, after so much struggle and disappointment throughout his life, turns to religion? Isn’t it a sign of weakness though – a sign of an inability to accept the human condition and his responsibility and choices, a complete delusion? – as well as an extension of his mental illness.
Henry was a mystic and believed Feelism had to be ‘felt’, therefore I have no way of explaining it to you. Mystics often state that human beings need to create a sense of God for themselves in much the same way artists pay great attention to the construction of their work. I got the name Feelism from the ‘feel’ musicians speak about in music, that indefinable and subjective groove. There is no God in Feelism, not as an objective fact, just a ‘feel’, a subjective experience, a mystical incident in the ground of being. Feelism is compassion which is a very difficult virtue, because it means we have to go beyond egotism, insecurity and prejudice.
Here is an extract from a hymn by the Reverend George Woods called The Blues God which partly inspired the Kill Devil Delta pataphor. Hopefully people won’t confuse the map (Henry) with the territory (me).
I fell upon a map of stone, in Christ’s tangled hair.
Down the biblical spiral, venom spewing from my livid tongue.
Woods was the real ‘Happy Harry’, an evangelist who preached the gospel and played a harmonium to the sinners along the Southend-on-Sea esplanade in the 20’s and 30’s. He was heckled by people who may well have thought he was mentally ill, and by those who refused to be saved from themselves. He would ask for donations from the hecklers and they would throw coins at him. He was an entertainer…
Who are your favourite writers and why? Has their work inspired your own writing and in what way?
It changes, but William Blake, Stevie Smith, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Mary Shelley and Kurt Vonnegut Jnr are usually on the list. Henry’s all-time favourite laugh-out-loud writer is Arthur Schopenhauer. I have no idea why I like them, I try not to analyse things like that. Stevie Smith wrote some novels which were fictionalised accounts of her own life, William Blake’s mythology inspired me to make the characters in Kill Devil Delta like a theatre company dramatising my ideas. George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying inspired Shabby Gentry, Dylan Thomas was one of the models for the character Blind Sea Bird Poor. The roman à clef The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath partly motivated me to write the Crowstone song Inside The Bell. Obviously I was inspired reading The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West. These days I prefer reading poetry to novels but I enjoyed both of yours very much indeed (Thank you! – Ed).
Will there be a second novel?
Yes! It’s going to be called Holy Ghetto Joe. It’s another ‘Feelism’ novel and I have already started writing it. It features a character not unlike Henry Douanier called Joe Hope. In 2019, he is doing research for a book called The Silver Palm Murders about a series of grisly killings in the 1970s on the run-down Southton pier dubbed by the press ‘The South Coast Jack The Ripper’. He discovers to his horror that a battered old fortune telling machine (the type with a creepy model of a gypsy inside) is giving him clues to the murder and, using the casebook notes left by Inspector Faith, who led the investigation, he comes up with a conspiracy theory. He later makes a chilling discovery about the true nature of the pier…
To know more about Kill Devil Delta and pre-order your copy, go HERE.
The Facebook page is HERE.
You can listen to some tracks by Crowstone HERE.
Johnny's band Devilish Presley have a new album out, The Electric Ballroom.
They will be touring the UK in October and November 2015!
Find all the details about the tour HERE.
Crowstone are playing at the famous Leigh Folk Festival on 28th June, 5.30pm at The Old Smack pub.
The official book launch for Kill Devil Delta will take place at The Salvation Artists free event in Leigh-on-Sea on June 27th.
Crowstone and Johnny will be joined by yours truly, designer Matt ArtPix and a whole bunch of talented poets, film makers and musicians for a whole day of "outsider art"! The last details are being finalised and everything will be posted HERE on the events page on Facebook (and I will do an "official blog" about it when we have the posters and flyers).
Come and join us!
The third guest on this Book Talk page is Leigh-on-Sea based publisher and author Audrey Snee.
Ms Snee is a truly cosmopolitan individual: brought up in North London in a close-knit Irish community, she has lived, studied and worked around the world. An experienced international journalist with a love of books and story-telling, she decided in 2011 to launch her own publishing imprint, Estuary Publishing, specialising in tales of the Thames estuary.
In 2012, Audrey published (under her nom de plume, Una Rose) an accomplished debut novel, The Tokyo Express, which has received some glowing reviews. At the core of the book the reader will find two poignant love stories that bridge the gap between Ireland in the 21st century and Japan in the aftermath of WW2.
Below I speak to Audrey about independent publishing and the inspiration behind her evocative and well-researched novel (the cover design is also beautiful!).
Audrey, you set up Estuary Publishing back in 2011. Could you tell us what made you decide to take the plunge? After all, becoming a small independent publisher in a business which has been dominated by traditional publishers (bigger and bigger corporations who keep merging together and dictating the public’s tastes) is no mean feat. What drove your decision?
I was helping a local fisherman, Paul Gilson, edit his short stories which he had ambitions to turn into a book. I had interviewed him several times in my role as a journalist and when he sent me some of his stories I realised he had great potential. At that point I didn't envisage actually publishing other people's books, although I had ideas of setting up an independent publishing company as I had written a novel myself and been on a self-publishing course. Then fate played a card. I was speaking to a local author who was curating a new event for Southend, a bi-annual literary festival of the sea and she lacked a voice for the fishing community! I told her about my fisherman contact and his book, and within minutes we were booked to speak at this prestigious event. Both Paul and I realised this was a golden opportunity to get the book into print. The talk we did at the festival was a sell-out and soon after the book called Sole Searching came out, that too became a local best-seller!
Did you meet any particular obstacles whilst setting up?
The biggest obstacle for any new venture is of course money! I had some savings which I used and I have kept the business very low scale, employing specialists such as designers and editors on contract. I find my skills of a journalist have translated well into publishing. You need to have good people skills in this business to get your foot in the door to retailers and to get media publicity. Being able to write a press release is a huge bonus! Of course obstacles exist in this ever declining industry where retailers are often more interested in Z-list celebrity biographies than original fiction/non-fiction, and where independent authors and publishers are considered less professional than the “traditional” published work. However the rapid rise of the e-book phenomenon and readers able to express which books they enjoy the book direct to other readers is breaking down those barriers and offering far greater opportunities to independents in the book world.
The Estuary Publishing tag line is: “Bridging the Thames with Words”. Could you tell us a bit more about the identity of the imprint and the way it is rooted in the Thames estuary? Why Southend/the Thames estuary?
I worked for several years at the Southend Echo and was always struck by the real passion in the town for the local history and literature. Yet there was no company focusing as such on this eager market! Southend has a rich history of writers and the location has been featured in many books, films and TV shows. It is also derided at times in the media as some sad Essex coastal town known for its benefits claimants and summer beano drinkfests. I felt that the town has so much to offer and by focusing on it and giving the passionate readers that live here more of the books they love reading, there was a business opportunity to grab. My company does more though than just publish local books. I am involved in many book events, as well as promoting literature in local schools and running a very popular online forum for other authors called SWAN, which stands for the Southend Writers and Artists Network. It currently has 333 members and is open to anyone with a link or interest in Essex and writing/art.
As a publisher, what were you after when you started looking for authors? What particular elements make you decide to sign someone to Estuary Publishing and convince you that they would fit in with the ethos of the imprint?
The ethos of the imprint is to tell a story of Southend/Essex/Thames Estuary region that is little known or not at all. Or as in the case of Robert Hallmann's excellent tale Festival of the Gargoyles. He takes the reader back to the mid-1800s when the smugglers ruled everything even the churchmen and although authority existed, they usually had a way to deal with that. That is until they encounter the feisty daughter of the new tax inspector who is equally if not more cunning than they are. As an avid historian, Robert was able to get into the minds of the simple people who at that time believed everything they were told and also allowed themselves to believe that what was even impossible to believe. It was an era of witch-hunting but this book only lightly touches on that (as that storyline can be rather cliché especially for Essex!) as it shows how smuggling was a way of life for most people, not just criminals with little known facts about the region delicately revealed.
Likewise when I met with Chris Poole, the first author of Ekco Sounds, I knew he was offering a very unique collection of voices from the past. He had a passion for the company both he and his father worked at and so once retired began collating information about and stories from previous employees of EKCO, a company that at one point employed over 7,000 residents of Southend and surrounding area. Sadly Chris died before his book even began the editing process but his good friend and fellow author Peter C Brown took over the job and produced an excellent account of the rise and fall of a remarkable company and its founder, Eric K Cole. This book wouldn't have also been possible if not for the great assistance of Eric's son Derek and the nephew of Chris who assisted with the handover of copyright and other legal matters.
As with all my authors, they live in the town and share the passion for telling its story. They can be counted on to promote the book, attend events and help boost sales. This is a vital element of who I choose.
After several years of running your own imprint, what lessons have you learnt so far? Have there been any good/bad surprises? And what would make it easier for you as a director of a small publishing company (apart from more money?)
The best and worst bit are the same really. Running a business single-handedly means you do get all the praise but it is a hard uphill struggle to get established, make good contacts in both the printing and supply trade as well as with the public, media, vendors. I get huge satisfaction at what I have achieved but also sad that it could be so much bigger and better if I were to have investment or that nationwide best-selling title!
We are in the middle of a publishing revolution, with new independent imprints emerging and self-publishing attracting a lot of interest; still, the “market” and the media are still dominated by the big traditional publishers and agents still decide who makes it or not. Traditional publishing, big literary festivals and the media are still very snobbish about small imprints and self-publishing even though there is so much great talent and quality publishing out there. What would it take for the decision makers to listen and take us seriously?
The biggest hurdle to cross for all independent imprints and authors is for even a best-selling self or independently published title to be given the same gravitas as a traditionally published one. But to enter the biggest book competitions such as the Man Booker for instance, you or your publisher have to be able to supply 1,000 copies and also offer funding of up to £10,000 to promote your book if chosen. This provides a sufficient enough hurdle for most non-traditionally published authors. I think if a film producer were “brave” enough to take on a self-published title for a film, it could turn the tide, but sadly they rely on agents and/or prize winning books, so for now the gateway is still closed off to us mere mortals!
I find it quite interesting that someone who really is a global, international individual (you have lived and worked in the Far East and you speak several languages) has set up a “locally minded” imprint.
Coming back from Asia after five years, I certainly didn't think I would get into parochial matters but once the children came, life did settle down (although right now we are making plans to all move abroad again!) My idea for the locally-minded imprint came from hearing about the love in Southend-on-Sea of its history and heritage when I was a journalist on the local newspaper. I did my research and learned that the local Waterstone's special local history section and is their best-selling. I think more publishers ought to look at their local readership, rather than trying to tap into an already crowded and shrinking national/international market.
You are also a writer. Under the author name Una Rose, you have published your first novel, The Tokyo Express. Did your own experiences and background as a journalist both abroad and in the UK influence your writing, and in what way?
Absolutely, I have several more books I want to write about my personal experiences in Asia. I had an incredible first-hand experience of working in the sporting world and the International Olympic Committee, as well as some incredible assignments in my role as an Asian correspondent for many newspapers and magazines. I also studied in Kiev, Ukraine as part of my Russian degree, just as the whole Soviet Union was imploding, which I feel is another a story worth telling! I have also started a novel set in the last 100 days before the Hong Kong Handover, a bizarre moment in world history.
The Tokyo Express packs in a lot of things: the 2011 tsunami, modern Tokyo, culture clashes, the impact of WWII on Japan, dysfunctional families, repressed environment, a rural Ireland still under the influence of Catholicism… Could you let us know a little bit about how the ideas for the book came into your head and how you shaped your characters?
It was a process that took time and I find swimming is the best way for me to think through a storyline as aside from breathing, I have nothing else to distract my mind with. The characters are never based on one person alone, more an amalgamation or formed from a brief encounter with a stranger who leaves an impact. Sometimes I take descriptions from people I see opposite me on trains. But once they are “born” in my mind they take on a real form and I ask myself, so how would Mimi respond to this then? I begin to know more about their personalities the more you think about them as you would a friend. The story lines sometimes again are “borrowed” from conversations. The scene of the priest and Conor aged 7 was one told to me by someone I met at a student party who in his drunken state needed to tell someone. I listened and was so shocked by it (this was before the Saville or church exposures of widespread child abuse) it somehow stayed deep in my memory and I knew it was something I must tell sometime.
I am personally unfamiliar with the cultures of Japan and Ireland. Those two countries are still steeped in tradition but have enjoyed their own economic booms and successes (although I am not too sure what’s happened to the Irish Tiger?). Japan seems to have bounced back. How well do you know those two cultures and what is your own relationship with them?
There is a song by The Vapors, a British pub-rock band, called “I'm turning Japanese”. I used to sing it all the time while I lived in Tokyo as despite everything I tried, the culture and customs are so strongly observed, I found myself following them without realising. Even after I left, I would be drawn to any news or book about the country. You could say it seeped into my soul ever so slightly. Also deep within is my Irish soul, my parents, grandparents, etc, have all been Irish. Although I grew up in North London, I was in an Irish community.
I first wrote the main love story of Conor and Mimi returning to Ireland and the 1945 tale but realised the story needed a hook to engage with readers other than those with an interest in Japan or Ireland. When the Tsunami hit, I realised this was an ideal opportunity to connect with readers of all ages and gender, as we all recall those horrific scenes on television. To include this also helps to show the modern day Japan as it has had such an impact on the country and shaken it up just as after WW2. People are listening less to the government and officials and making up their own minds about matters – this really didn't happen before this disaster as the teaching is always listen and obey elders. Japan is slowly recovering from recession but the Japanese are naturally cautious and the biggest savers in the world. Investing in Japan is considered a safe bet. Also people forget there was an earthquake in Japan too, the “big one”, which was expected for over 20 years. It actually didn't cause as much damage as expected thanks to the earthquake-proof technology that allows tall buildings to move on rollers in their foundations. I experienced several “minor” earthquakes and I can tell you it is a very frightening experience.
As for the Celtic Tiger, it was roaring for about a decade and then has quietly gone to bed as government and local officials are being proven to have been corrupt. Ireland has more unfinished housing developments than graveyards now. It changed the national character of Ireland too. People became needy and greedy, houses bigger, cars flasher, dresses and shoes to out-do the Kardashians! Some people got fabulously rich but far more are still in awful debt trying to still live the “dream”. Ireland was once a haven from all the commercialisation and a place where people had time to laugh and take life at a slower pace, alas for most now this is no longer possible. Taxation is on average 50% and young people work as hard as those in Manhattan.
I have to admit that I found Conor consistently infuriating and wondered about his motivations: why on earth did he come back and stay to take over the pub and live with his horrendous mother? Why didn’t he tell everyone to go to hell (ha ha!) and left them to their own devices and left the country again? What made you decide for everyone to remain in Ireland even after what had happened (and you are being honest presenting it as a suitably grim place, almost Gothic in its strange bleakness at times). It reminded me of descriptions of the South of the US, all religion and hostile and repressed inhabitants who seem to be already half-dead and hide a lot of family secrets…
Conor was deliberate. He is a “Marmite” character, you either absolutely hate him (most people do, at least until they really get to know him) or you love him. There are people out there who genuinely do. In fact I was once stopped in a supermarket by a reader who had recently bought a copy from me at a signing, and told in no uncertain terms I must bring him back again in another book! She loved his vulnerability. Reviewers too have remarked on him, which can only be a good thing as it is a character that lives on in their memory. Is Ireland so bleak, no, but it is for Conor and for that matter his mother who cannot escape it. In the past people really did have their lives scrutinised by neighbours and the church. My grandmother told me many such stories. I felt by showing how warm everyone is to Mimi that everyone else (except the Flanaghan family) has moved on and is willing to embrace her and a new way of thinking. Conor returns because it is still his “home” which is a very strong emotive to a lot of Irish diaspora.
I was also surprised that such a clever and modern girl like Mimi would like Ireland and stay so long. I thought she was a very interesting character and really added a little bit of magic to the story; she seems to be this beneficial good fairy looking over Conor and his dysfunctional relatives. But again, I would question her motivations: why did she set up shop at the end with Maureen? Is it all about forgiveness?
[PS: the bit where Mimi walks into the church wearing her Japanese clothes is simply superb. It would work great in a movie (slow motion, etc.)]
Mimi is an only child who has lost everything in Japan and is pregnant. Is it not then a wise move to be with her estranged husband's family? She lost a grandparent in the great Canto Quake in the 1920s and now her parents in the latest quake – it would make you think if it is a place to bring up a child if you have a choice to be somewhere else. Maureen has her awakening and realises if she wants change she has to make it happen and getting rid of the bar eases her workload. They become closer with Conor absent and with the arrival of the grandchild. The scene of Mimi at the church is my favourite scene and plenty have commented on the film-like quality of the book. In fact one reviewer on Goodreads said it would be better as a film than a book and plenty of others have echoed that sentiment. My most recent reviewer went as far as to say: “The Tokyo Express is quite a long read. However, it is near flawless in its writing, deeply-researched in its scale and scope, beautifully presented and highly enjoyable. I’m surprised it hasn’t been picked up by a major publisher.”
(Reviews are posted at this link: http://amzn.to/1O7JUzX)
Your descriptions of the tsunami-ravaged landscapes and of a defeated Japan after WWII are very evocative and a real success. Could you tell us a bit about how you worked on your research?
I buried myself deep in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London unearthing some real gems, books written for US servicemen for when they arrived in Japan and books also written in the 1940s for Japanese to understand the “gaijin”. It helped to be able to read some Japanese to navigate through it. However my best research came from speaking to a lovely gentleman in Japan who was seven years old when the Americans arrived and his memory is still so vivid of the whole experience. His own father, who was a minor official in the Imperial Government, was put in prison as a POW for nearly a year so his mother forbade him from speaking to the Americans, but he said it was impossible as they were so friendly and of course had lots of sweets for the kids. As for the tsunami scenes, I absorbed myself in every media coverage of the event with the realisation I could have so easily been caught up in it myself. While I was living in Japan, there were many real warnings it was imminent.
Have you based Owen’s lover Mariko Hayashi on any real Japanese politician?
No, but I read only recently of a woman who could have so easily been Mariko who only died very recently. She helped the Americans to draft the post-war constitution.
If a movie were made of your book, which actors would play Conor and Maureen?
I would love Ewan McGregor to play Conor and Imelda Staunton for Maureen.
What’s next for Estuary Publishing? Do you have any new signing in mind?
I am working on some children's books with my teenage daughters who are illustrating it. I am also hoping to commission a book about The Endeavour, a Dunkirk Little Ship which has been restored and returns again this year to Dunkirk for the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo.
Are you working on some new ideas for a novel at the moment and will they be very different from The Tokyo Express?
I have several novels I wish to write based on my travels and life in Asia and the Soviet Union, as well as a first person account of my working relationship with Japanese table tennis legend Ogimura.
Which authors inspire you? Who are your favourite authors/books?
I am happy to see my girls enjoying the same books I loved as a child, such as Daphne Du Maurier and Jane Austen, especially given the current fashion for fast-paced American teen literature. Aside from such classics, I am drawn to cosmopolitan writers such as Roma Tearne, Andrea Levy and Monica Ali, and travel fiction authors like Paul Theroux. I am currently reading an independently published novel called Heartbreaker by Nick Louth, which is taking me into complex world of Middle Eastern politics and religion with great ease and a great love story to boot! I love to learn about a place as well as be captured by a great plot and characters.
You can buy all the books mentioned above from the Estuary Publishing website.
The Tokyo Express and Festival of the Gargoyles will be part of Arcane Publishing's stock at The Unit @The Customs House, West Bay, Dorset, from August 1st.
As the Book Talk series goes on, you will become aware of the fact that I love people who don't stick to only one thing in their lives and who don't settle for the status quo.
My second guest is self-proclaimed "Angry Poet", publisher, stage manager and punk biography writer Steve Pottinger. Formerly known on the punk poetry scene as Spot The Poet, Steve is passionate about making sense of and highlighting inequalities in our society. He has strong values and a DIY (hard)work ethic. He has three excellent poetry collections under his belt, full of incredibly varied texts that reveal a very astute understanding of human nature. If his poetry is full of sometimes harrowing and often poignant scenes, there are also some glimpses of (thankfully unsentimental) love and beauty in there.
Back in 2010, Steve became a publisher and launched Ignite Books, an independent publishing company specialised in fearless literature - publishing one of my all time favorite novels, Joolz Denby's Wild Thing. I admit that Ignite Books was my inspiration for Arcane Publishing. Steve has been very generous too, sharing tips and pieces of advice and also typesetting Arcane Publishing's first book, my debut novel I Am a Muse.
Below is an interview with Mr Pottinger about performance poetry, Ignite Books and THAT LETTER to Caffe Nero about their taxes (BBC article HERE, The Independent article HERE and The Morning Star article HERE.
You will also find Steve's "tour dates"; he has just taken part in the lively Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
And he wants us to elect Wilko Johnson president! Good idea.
‘We look for tales that entertain and draw us in, that have something to say about our world, our society, and our common humanity. We make room for voices which would otherwise remain unheard, and we’ve a penchant for narratives that make us laugh out loud, then whip the ground out from under us when we least expect it.’
I think you have been writing poetry for several decades now. Could you tell us when/how you started writing?
I was still at school, and someone introduced me to the work of the Liverpool poets - Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. It was the first time I’d read poetry which talked about a world I understood, had a sense of irreverence and wonder and social criticism, and used language in a way I recognised as mine.
A little later, I discovered Adrian Mitchell. I was young enough and arrogant enough to believe I had something to say. So I decided I’d give it a go.
Why poetry and not short stories/essays/novels?
I’m a big fan of the brevity and incisiveness of poetry. I love the way that good poetry can illuminate a familiar subject so the reader sees it in a way they haven’t before, or can take the everyday and humdrum, and turn it into something memorable. Other forms of writing do this too, of course, but the swift slap! bang! of poetry really appeals. Some of my work has been in prose, as short stories or flash fiction, and I’ve a few rough drafts of longer pieces which I mean to get round to developing some time in the future...
How do you work on a poem and how long does it take you to get to the final text? Do you wake up, have an idea and scribble furiously and it’s all done, or do you actually edit the text over a certain amount of time?
That varies from poem to poem. Sometimes - and I’ve no real explanation for how it happens - the poem seems to write itself and the trick is simply to keep writing and not disrupt the flow. ‘No-one likes an angry poet’ for example, which is over three minutes long, needed virtually no editing or re-writing. I was at a friend’s house, couldn’t be distracted by TV or radio or internet, and the poem turned up fully formed. On other occasions, I find myself scrawling down a couple of lines, or the germ of an idea, and have to come back to it - maybe months later - and graft at hewing the poem into shape. Either is fine.
What makes a good poem, for you? And what is “bad” poetry for you?
A good poem speaks to me. It’s honest, it has something to say about the world we live in. It challenges me, or enriches my understanding, or makes me look at a familiar situation in a new way. Bad poetry? I have two personal bugbears. One: anything where the poet is talking *at* the reader rather than *to* us - I’m not interested in how clever you are, I want you to engage with me, speak to me as one individual to another. Two: poets inflicting pieces about a relationship breakdown on an audience - having a pop at your ex may be cathartic, but keep it to yourself. You’ll only look like a dick if you don’t.
You’ve had three collections of poems published now: Shattered (1994), published under your pen-name Spot the Poet, Kissing it all (1996) and Island Songs (2012). Would you say that if you re-read your work, you’d find there is a natural evolution in the themes/style of your poems?
I think there is. (and yes, I did just nip off and re-read all three books). Within Shattered, or Kissing It All, there’s work which - even twenty years on - I really enjoy, which has stood the test of time. What I love about Island Songs is that there’s more of a sense of celebration of life, as well as fury about what’s wrong. So yes, I think my writing is evolving and changing, and that’s good, because so am I.
Most of your work has a social and/or political angle, and your poetry is deeply rooted in alternative cultures – especially the punk community - but has a very human, “universal” appeal. How easy has it been to keep your values and opinions throughout the years? So many people lose their fire and change completely as they grow older, have a “career”, settle down, etc. Also, our increasingly homogenised and bland society makes it increasingly hard to live according to one’s own rules; everything is more expensive, societal pressure/expectations are more obvious now especially with social media, etc.
If we’re lucky, we get 70 or 80 years on this beautiful planet. That’s all. Nowhere near enough. A long time ago, I decided I’d rather get by on less money than spend the best part of my time here doing something I hated, and seeing as I was responsible for no-one but myself, there was nothing to stop me. So that’s what I did. It’s what I try to do now. I’m way more interested in cramming as much experience as possible into my time here than slaving to buy the latest washing-machine or flat-screen TV. As the saying goes, no-one dies wishing they’d spent more time in the office. Or slobbing in front of the dead-eye, come to that. As for keeping my fire, maybe that’s been easy because it’s rooted in an enthusiasm *for* a better world, rather than simply a hatred *of* what’s going on. Being angry is exhausting. Loving the world is not.
Have you felt at some point like giving up trying “to change the world one poem at a time”?
Of course. But in the end I come back to it because I believe it’s important and it’s part of who I am. I learned a good few years ago that if you feel you’re just banging your head against a brick wall, it’s time to go and do something different for a while. Recharge your batteries. Go and walk on a beach or spend some time down the pub or lose yourself in a book. Whatever you need. You won’t do anyone any good (least of all yourself) by burning out. Above all, it’s worth having the humility to remember you’re just one voice among many. I learn from and am inspired by others, and I hope that every now and then I do some small thing which passes that lesson on in turn.
Your poems are inhabited by very flawed, fragile people; there’s violence and addiction, but I can see a very, very deep understanding of human nature. A lot of your poems are incredibly poignant. I think you have worked with homeless people and have lived on the margins of society (correct me if I’m wrong!). Has it given you an insight in some aspects of human nature that people who haven’t had your life experience cannot even begin to understand?
I think everyone can understand it. The question is whether they want to. There can be a lot of resistance to being asked to see as fully human the person who’s struggling with alcohol or addiction or whatever it might be. It’s much more comforting to blame self-destructive people for bringing their misfortunes on themselves. Because then they’re not like you; because then what’s happening to those people - the poor and the dispossessed and the f**ked up - isn’t your problem. You’re OK and they’re not. You’re a good person, and they’re not. They’re their own worst enemy and you don’t need to think about it, because you live in different worlds and always have and always will. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a problem with that point of view. And I don’t think that will change. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all flawed. It’s always a question of ‘There but for the grace of god...’ and if some of my poems act as a reminder of that in some small way, that’s good.
In 2010, you co-wrote Steve Ignorant’s autobiography (Steve Ignorant is the frontman of anarcho-punk band Crass), The Rest Is Propaganda, and more recently, you have done it again, working with Ross Lomas on his autobiography, City Baby, which I think has been the most successful book published by Ignite Books, your publishing imprint (of which more below). How have you found the writing process and how does it compare to writing your own poetry?
When Steve came to me and asked me to work on his book with him - he’d read Kissing It All and loved the way I wrote - the first thing I said to him was that I’d never done anything like that before, and I couldn’t promise I’d be able to make a success of it, but that I’d give it a go. I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed it. The process of listening to someone’s stories, asking questions, probing into their life, and then writing the whole thing up in their voice is an absolute privilege. I’ve also been very lucky that both Steve and Ross were - in their very different ways - a joy to work with. In each case, the story of their life has turned out to be one they’ve told with great honesty, which is often funny, occasionally very moving, and which you don’t need to be a fan of punk to enjoy. I’m incredibly proud of both books.
Would you give fiction a try one day? Why/why not?
The rough draft of a novel has been sitting in a drawer at home for some time, waiting for me to come back to it. As with so many things, it’s a matter of there not being anything like enough hours in the day to do everything I want to.
This year, you are booked to do quite a few gigs, and the list is growing all the time. How important is the performance side of your poetry? Can you be a poet without ever performing?
It’s entirely possible to be a wonderful poet without ever getting up in front of an audience (some poetry works better on the page, other poetry in performance); but for me it’s something I value hugely and really enjoy. It’s all about connection with others, which I think is something all human beings crave. Writing poetry is a solitary experience, sharing poetry is not. I believe it should be no different from sharing music. A good gig can take people outside of themselves, immerse them in something bigger. Good poetry should too.
What do you think about the craze for spoken word clubs that are sprouting up all around the country, with everyone getting up to say their bit?
I think it’s good. It’s the old punk ethos of just getting up there and giving it a go finally making it to the poetry world. If you want a chance to read your work, you’ve got it. And if you approach it as an opportunity to learn the craft of writing and performance, and be honest with yourself about what the strengths and weaknesses of your writing are, that’s great. Above all, you get to listen to a dozen different voices - different points of view, abilities and confidence - in the course of an evening. So it can be great. Equally, I’ve been to some nights where the organiser’s ego is front and centre stage. That’s less good. I’ve been to nights which seem desperate to ape comedy clubs, and I think that’s a mistake. Go along and try them out, for sure, but remember that not all clubs are the same. And if there isn’t anything where you live, set one up. All you need is a room...
You are also a publisher. You set up Ignite Books back in 2010 with author and artist Joolz Denby, and your little independent venture has been gathering pace ever since. Could you please take us through the birth of Ignite, and explain why you think there is room for a small, independent imprint like yours?
Writing Steve Ignorant’s book opened the door to a different form of writing. It also drew me into involvement with editing, and proofreading, and all the work that precedes a book actually being published. All of that was very interesting, and it set me thinking... I’m old enough to remember the explosion of independent music labels spawned by punk, when musicians decided they had more to gain from being in control of their own releases rather than being dependent on the whim of A&R men. What if we did this in literature too? I knew Joolz had a manuscript which she was struggling to find a publisher for (all the majors seemed to be chasing the next Harry Potter copy or were pumping out chick-lit) so I approached her and said ‘How about we do this ourselves?’ She said yes, and suddenly I had to back up my idea, and learn how to make it happen. That was back in 2010, and Ignite is still here, so I guess I must be doing something right!
What are the positives and negatives of being a small independent publisher competing with the giants of the publishing industry? What have been your biggest challenges so far? Do you think you’ll be invited – along with other indie publishers - to one of the big events in the literary calendar one day?
Ignite was a challenge from day one! I had to learn everything from scratch. I had no real idea of how to typeset a book and design a cover, or where I’d find reputable printers, or how on earth I’d create and run a website, so there was a hell of a learning curve to cope with before I even began to think about how we’d sell our books. It’s fair to say that without the generosity of other people who shared their knowledge and experience - I’m incredibly grateful to them even now - Ignite would probably never have got off the ground. They gave me the necessary pointers, a much-needed leg-up, and then I had to take it from there. That’s both the positive *and* the negative of being a small publisher: nothing happens without you rolling up your sleeves and getting it done, and while that’s wonderfully exhilarating, it eats up your time and it’s a lot of hard work, too. An invitation to a big literary event? I don’t even think about it. There’s too much to do.
I understand that Amazon’s attitude towards indie authors and publishers is far from being encouraging. I think you’ve had a few issues with them yourself. Could you tell us what you think about this?
I am not a fan of Amazon. They’re structured to avoid paying tax, they treat their staff appallingly, and their only interest in publishers seems to be to screw every penny possible out of them. In both the US and Germany they’re currently refusing to stock titles by certain major publishers with the intention of pressurising them into accepting a less favourable deal. We deal with them as little as possible. If someone wants an Ignite title, I point them in the direction of our website. For other books, I recommend hive.co.uk. This has the same convenience of click-and-buy, and you can either have the books delivered to your home or pick them up from your local independent bookshop. Simple. And way better than A***on.
So far, you have released poetry by yourself, fiction by Joolz Denby, as well as autobiographical works by drummer Dave Barbarossa (Adam and The Ants, Republica and more) and Ross Lomas (bass player with punk band GBH). You all have very close ties with the world of music. Do you think this is what gives Ignite Books its uniqueness and distinguishes it from other imprints? Is this something you intend to carry on in the future?
I’d love to say we have an over-arching plan, but the truth is I’ve taken whatever opportunities have come along to publish great writing and superb stories. Given that I’ve worked in music and around musicians for so long, I suppose it’s no surprise that’s reflected in our publications to date. Will it continue? Quite possibly.
What would make your life as a small publisher easier?
A publicist. Someone to promote what we do and put it in front of the right people. Or put me in front of the right people and let me chew their ear off.
Could you give us an idea of Ignite’s future releases?
There’s a couple of ideas being bounced around at the moment, but I’ll keep the details under my hat for now, thanks! Watch this space.
In November 2013, you released a video called “No one likes an angry poet” about Starbucks’s tax evasion. Now, as we speak, you are yourself at the centre of some kind of tax evasion “storm”: your letter to Caffè Nero which you sent on an angry impulse, has gone viral, you have been featured on the BBC News website, the Independent and The Morning Star. Could you briefly take us through what happened? It’s like a social media soap opera, some have said! How do you think this will end? In tears?
Social media moves so fast that it already feels we’re talking about ancient history. Briefly, what happened is this: at the end of April, I read that Caffè Nero had paid no UK corporation tax on £21 million profit, so I wrote them a letter. I also took a photo of it and put it up on facebook and twitter, not expecting much response. 24 hours later it had 300 shares. Two days after that it was up to 20,000. Then it went viral. Then the press got involved, and then Caffè Nero wrote to me, offering a meeting. I insisted it be on the record, they insisted it wouldn’t be. While we played email ping-pong, the world moved on, which I suspect is what Caffè Nero were waiting for. To be honest, I was never under the illusion that they’d change their policy just because a poet wrote them a letter, but it did make for a couple of very uncomfortable weeks for them. Needless to say, I’ll be drinking in independent coffee shops from now on.
What would you say to people saying that it is naïve and disingenuous to try and tackle people like Caffè Nero, it’s all legal, that’s the way the world works, you’re wrong, etc. ?
What was interesting was that as a result of my letter, tax experts I’d never heard of did some digging into Caffè Nero and agreed they were deliberately structured to avoid paying tax. So the accusation I’m naïve or disingenuous really doesn’t stand. Even more interestingly, this week has seen the Conference on Inclusive Capitalism in London, where you’ve got very successful business people, the Governor of the Bank Of England, and so on, all arguing that businesses need to pay more attention to the need to honour the social contract. If major business leaders are saying the system is failing to serve the general public, then I think it’s fair to say there *is* a problem. People on low pay or zero hours contracts know that already, of course.
Finally: who inspires your poems and the way of life you have chosen for yourself? (Literary, musical, landscape, etc.)
Lenny Bruce said something which pretty much sums it up for me: I’m inspired by every waking moment. There’s so much out there to be inspired by. For every narrow-minded bigot there’s someone fighting for their rights with dignity. There’s wonderful music to feed your soul. There’s creativity and generosity and laughter to set against humanity’s capacity for selfishness and greed. And wherever you are, there’s somewhere to sit and feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair and remind yourself the world will still be turning when you’re gone. You’re a clever monkey. Enjoy it while you’re here.
For more info about Steve's poetry work, go to HIS WEBSITE.
Ignite Books has got terrific reads for you at very reasonable prices. You can find more info about Ignite Books, its authors and book list on THE IGNITE BOOKS WEBSITE.
Steve will be performing around the country in the forthcoming months; catch him at the following venues:
London: 9th June 2014. More Poetry, Leyden Street, E1. (in memory of Bob Crow)
Guildford: 17th June 2014. Pop-up Poetry in the Bar des Arts.
Lancaster: 19th June 2014. Upstairs at the Robert Gillow pub, Lancaster.
Cumbria: 20th June 2014. Ravenstonedale festival….
Glasgow: 30th June 2014. Guest poet at Last Monday at Rio’s.
Buxton: 1st July 2014. Spoken Word in Buxton.
Leamington Spa: 10th July 2014. Pure and Good and Right.
Blackpool: 8&9th August 2014. Rebellion festival.
Brighton: 4th September 2014. Hammer & Tongue in Brighton.
Wolverhampton: 9th September 2014. City Voices.
Hebden Bridge: 16th September 2014. Shindig.
London: January 2015. Fourth Friday.
13/5/2014 1 Comment
JORDAN REYNE: REMEMBERING THE DEAD
The best way I could describe Jordan Reyne would be as "A Renaissance Woman for the 21st Century". Musician, storyteller, historian, philosopher, illustrator, technology enthusiast and now novelist, the New-Zealander is hard at work redefining the "DIY" tag - high quality on a limited budget with complete creative control. I have completely fallen in love with her music (you can read my review of her lastest full-length album, The Annihilation Sequence, HERE and a live review HERE). Here, we discuss her terrific first novel, Remembering The Dead, and her latest project, the EP Trilogy Maiden, Mother, [CRONE].
If I had been a literary agent, I would have decided to sign Jordan Reyne on the spot after only a few chapters. Remembering the Dead is very original and refreshing, with a rather unique feel. I think this is partly due to the setting, which is entirely alien to me: a remote area of New-Zealand, and the amount of original ideas included in the book, and of course Jordan's natural talent for story-telling...
There is some info about how the book came about on your website, but it would be great if you could give us here an idea of the circumstances that led you to write the novel. You were commissioned by the NZ Arts Council to write your album “How The Dead Live” about a pioneer community, and sent to Karamea to work on it, is that right? When did you realise that in addition to the album, you would write a book about it?
It came about in a sort of accidental, or maybe "serendipitous" way. I'd come back to New Zealand after several months in Germany before the commission came about. Without going into the detail, it was one of those experiences that shakes the foundations of how you think the world works, and who you think you are. I came back with pieces of my own story, and the stories of others in my head not knowing how they fit together. There was a strong feeling of having to go back to the place I had been raised to find an anchor for it.
The west coast is one of those places where time stands still, and all the time I had been in Germany had been the opposite feeling – that time was not working as it should; that it was fractured somehow. On the coast, you have these epoch-spanning processes by which mountains rise up from the sea, and forests form and evolve. You can sense the weight of it. Your own sense of time becomes subsumed into it and kind of slows. That feeling gave me the peace I needed to piece a lot of things together – both my own story and the stories of the people I had been sent there to gather. It gave me a sort of distance whilst enabling me to reconnect with who I was and what I was there for.
Being there to hunt down the tales of the people who had come there under far more difficult circumstances than my own gave me a perspective on things. It taught me a lot about what it means to get on with things, even when it feels like it's impossible to do so. I'd been sent to write an album, and songs are simple, short, confined things. They were tasks I could manage. The thing was, there was so much more to the history of the coast than what I ended up choosing for the album. It was rich with tales that had never been voiced. It seemed a shame to let them go unspoken, so they wove their way into what I was writing for myself at the time. Eventually, they took on a life of their own, guiding me into a story that seemed to tell itself.
Did you have a precise idea of what you wanted to achieve with the novel/the kind of story you wished to tell?
Actually, no – not when I started it, though it did become clear once I'd found the anchor point. The book actually took me 6 years to write because a lot of what it is about, I eventually realised, is the ways we make sense of time and our own place in it. It's about how we narrate both ourselves and our broader history, and the process of selecting what we think are important or pivotal events within that.
The main character – Lethe – is a gravedigger in the employ of History. She is very aware of the form that facts must be presented in, but has trouble finding the facts she needs. The dragon is a contrast to that: It has all the facts, but has difficulty putting them in order because it is unfamiliar with the linear way that human beings string things together. It doesn't know what constitutes a "beginning thing" and what constitutes an ending or a middle. It has no sense of cause and effect because not all of the things that occur to us have obvious or tangible causes. It is confused by how humans hone in on things that they believe to be causal, and make a tale out of them. The dragon is naive, whereas Lethe has the cynicism, for better or worse, to know what people are inclined to think are significant events and significant causes, so she hunts them out because her livelihood depends on it.
Even though the book is a novel, there are quite a few parallels with your own life in there. The character looks like you, is a musician, returns to the isolated area of her childhood on commission, leaves for Germany… Was it important for you to base the fiction in reality and incorporate elements of your own life?
Eventually basing it on some of the things that were going on in my own life became necessary, though I have to admit I wasn't comfortable giving so much away. Most of my music projects focus on the tales of other people, and I try, as much as I am capable, to put myself in their shoes and sing from their standpoint, as far as I can understand it. There is always the temporal disjunction and the fact that my own culture shapes what I will understand and articulate about their situation. A novel is a far longer project than an album. Because the book delves into the history of many people, it needed an anchor point. I didn't want that anchor point to be myself, but it was the thing that worked best – I also needed a disclaimer really, because of how the tales were gathered and what was going on in my own head at the time. It's a mix of fact and folklore; oral history and the chunks of information that have survived through time to stick in the museum.
The easiest anchor point to find – and the one I needed to find at the time – was my centrality in the project at hand. In a way, it was like writing into the book that there is a perspective, and one that is coloured by one’s place in time, one’s prior associations with the subject matter, and what is going on in one’s head at the time. Objectivity is an illusion but one which we aspire to when dealing with history. I was well aware that objectivity was completely out of my grasp at the time and that all the subjectivity in the book was coming from my own character. Anchoring the story in the very clearly flawed perspective of a person too close to the sources seemed a more honest way to disclose things. It allowed the facts and folklore to come together in a way that could breathe and seem natural, because in a way, it is natural that we taint things, and the same person tainting them will have at least some consistency to it. So long as we remain aware that we are tainting facts – even by the sheer process of choosing one set of events over another when given the task of retelling – we are being honest. It's when we believe that we have achieved objectivity that we are most likely to be fooling ourselves. Lethe, the gravedigger, has a very subjective perspective, because my own was at the time. The best way to explain her lack of objectivity ends up being explaining my own.
I love the character of “History”, which you show as wearing Victorian Gothic garb and being the manager of some kind of rigid corporate administrative department. She also appears in your video for the song “The Proximity of Death” (one of my personal favourites!). How did you get the idea for that character? I think it’s a really original idea.
Thank you! I’m not sure how original it is, but I enjoyed writing her character. It's a fairly well-known idea that history is written by those that come out on top after any set of chaotic events. History itself is coloured; the character “History” is restricted in her actions by her need to report to shareholders – that is, the people who hold the purse strings and who are responsible for her having the position she has.
She is someone who seems ultimately powerful because she is someone who can render you forgotten or remembered with the sweep of a pen. But her power is tethered. Facts do not speak for themselves, we speak for them. Which facts we voice and the facts we remain silent about are influenced by many things – the political climate of the time, our ability to even find "facts", and the structure of narrative itself. History has a difficult time. She has a sea of information to wade through and make sense of. She is expected to make sense out of that which may or may not be sensical because that is how humans want information presented. She is also expected, by the powers that be, to make a kind of sense that fits with an agenda.
Making “History” a character was also a way of indicating that history has always been coloured by the value set of those reporting it. Again, it points to the impossibility of objectivity, but at a higher level, at the level of authority. It’s easy enough to believe that everyday people are flawed in their ability to report facts, but it proliferates both upwards and downwards. Just because someone is in a position of power and authority does not exempt them from subjectivity. All human beings are motivated by a plurality of forces. What those forces are may differ at the top and bottom of the food chain, but there are always forces present to sway what we do, say and report.
The character of the scientist also appears in one of your videos (“The Arsonist”). The sections about the scientist and his mad household inhabited by clever mice almost read like a separate story for most of the book. It is definitively bonkers. What gave you the idea of including those chapters?
The scientist has managed to isolate himself utterly by attempting to be an observer and not a participant in terms of the world around him. He seems separate because of that choice, and he occupies that space just outside society that is usually reserved for those we label "mad". In a way, he is there to represent madness. The thing about the scientist is that he is mad because he is under the illusion he can be objective. Lethe risks falling into his world when she too forgets to participate in the world around her. The scientist has a huge sense of superiority because of the field he operates in. Science is something we often elevate to a position of infallibility. The scientist’s world is dangerous, because his belief that he cannot be wrong leads him to ignore things he should not.
So yes, the scientist reads like a fictive character, in contrast to the historical aspect of the book and the careful (but flawed) way the gravedigger is gathering stories. His objectivity is the fiction, though. That, combined with his arrogance about his abilities, risks impacting the world that goes beyond his own tale. It risks impacting Lethe’s own understanding of herself and her story because the tools he uses to understand the world around him are ones he sees as the only way of procuring understanding. Science is, of course, an incredibly useful tool, and it leads us to a far deeper understanding of certain phenomena than we would ever otherwise have. But it is also only a tool. You don’t use a spade to bang in a nail. The scientist wants to apply his spade to all tasks, and because of that, he risks missing things that have a value and meaning only discernable if one is aware that a spade is not the applicable tool for the task at hand.
There are a lot of things I like about the book, and one of them is the fact that it is very accessible; no pretentious prose here, but at the same time, it is quite ambitious in terms of meaning, it is very deep and at times very poetic. The book is full of philosophical insight, there are some great passages in there, reflections about the human condition, doubts, hopes… You studied philosophy at university, didn’t you? What attracted you to philosophy and do you think it still has a place/relevance nowadays in our dumbed-down society?
I did study philosophy, yes, at Auckland University in New Zealand. What attracted me to it was that it allowed you to look for meaning simply by asking. You didn’t need equipment or gadgetry to inquire about why things are as they are. You just needed to be able to ask, and look at the structure of the answers that came back. It allows you to search for meaning in any area you care to. It also alerts you to the fact there may be no answers, but that that in itself is often useful. Knowing the emperor is not wearing any clothes is an old adage, but as that adage goes, when everyone around is proclaiming he is clothed, and requiring certain behaviours from you because of that, it can be very refreshing to know you aren't in the wrong for saying "this is bullshit".
It might be my bias to the subject but I think philosophy is utterly vital, and even more so in a society where values are being pushed upon us from so many directions without giving us the time or space to gravitate towards our own. Philosophy is about questioning where ideas come from. It's about looking for what is behind the things you think you know. It's about coming closer to discerning what is potentially bullshit and what might have some validity, and why.
One of the most dangerous sentences in the human vocabulary is "we do it like this because it has always been done like this". It reads like the answer to a question but it has no information in it. That sentence does not ask why a behaviour arose in the first place. It is a sentence that has perpetuated race hate, gender hate, homophobia and all manner of restrictive and damaging practices. Philosophy can be as simple as asking "why have we always done this?" instead of accepting the sentence as some kind of answer. If people ask questions, then things that aren’t working can change. If we don't ask questions, we are trapped. What we call "dumbing-down" looks to me like the process of squelching questions, of telling us to accept certain things as answers. Philosophy is even more vital than ever when that kind of process is going on.
At your gigs, you often joke that you have quite dark thoughts and think about death a lot, etc. but you also project a very chatty, sociable, rational persona interested in technology and science. Remembering The Dead is about, well, the dead, and them coming back to tell their story and haunting the living. One silly question: do you actually believe in supernatural phenomenon, life after death, etc? And, related to this, do you think that if you find yourself in an isolated rural area with a lot of history, folk tales and legends, even the most rational mind can get influenced by nature/isolation?
Personally, I don't believe in supernatural phenomena as such, no. I don't believe in ghosts or in zombies that walk the forests at night, desperate to tell their tales to the living. My father was a scientist, and my first qualification was as a software engineer. It means I grew up in an environment that favoured very logical, empirical arguments.
What I do believe in is that there are many ways of procuring meaning from the world around us. There is no one tool that will give us all the answers in an utterly objective way. What I believe in is the power of how we string facts together, and the power we have to use symbolism to facilitate ways of seeing. There are an infinite number of ways to shape a fish hook. If the pond we throw our fish hooks into is all the things there are to know or see or experience, it is useful to realise that each fish hook will pull out a different kind of thing. There is no single fish hook that will pull out everything there is in that pond. For a start it will only pull out fish, when there is plenty more on offer than just that. Science and rationalism are incredibly useful tools, invaluable even. But they are not the only hooks to throw into a pond.
In terms of life after death – I suspend my disbelief. I am a product of my culture, upbringing and heritage as much as anyone else, and my atheism is part of that. I don’t believe I have any kind of window on the truth though, just because my culture is one that says we do, by virtue of preferring certain kinds of hooks. I also don’t imagine that anything that happens after death is the sort of thing I could fathom. The way we see the pond is limited by the hooks at our disposal. I will find out when I get there, or not. In the meantime, and for my own purposes, it helps to live my life like it is the only one I will get. Doing so helps me decide what is important because the idea of death limits the things I am able to do and experience, so I have to narrow it down to what I find important. That fact helps me become aware of what I value.
To answer the second part – whether I think the most rational mind can be influenced by isolation – we would be failing to recognise our connectedness to our own contexts if we thought we would be/behave/feel the same in all environments and social settings. We are human beings. Our environment will always affect what we see or are capable of seeing. We like to think that rationality gives us a window to simple, discrete truths, but that idea is actually dangerous because it ignores the way human beings select and string facts together, and the colour that is added when we do so. It ignores the things that drive us to seek certain kinds of facts in the first place, and the pre-existing interest that is shaped by the environment and cultures of which we are a part.
None of us are isolated, discrete entities. We are bound to our environments, to societies, and the processes that are part of that. Wherever you are, there will be things that influence you because you can’t switch off being affected. You can’t decouple yourself from the world even by trying to only observe it. If all that surrounds you is mountains, and the roar of the surf, those things become influential.
I loathe reading books with stereotypical characters, put in to please the reader/publisher. I like the fact that Lethe is not defined by her gender but by who she is and what she does, and I have to say the relationship she has with Marko rings so true to me, two intelligent, curious people learning to know each other, their doubts, etc. This was really well written, sober and touching at the same time… Did you think it was important to include a “love story” in the book?
Well described too is the way the language barrier can be so infuriating to break when you are desperate to make yourself understood by someone you love… You moved to Germany in 2005 from NZ, was it a very big culture shock?
I would have preferred NOT to include a love story to be honest, but it was the catalyst that led me into writing, and leaving it out would have made Lethe's somewhat shattered state much more difficult to understand. This was my first novel, so coming up with things that are totally outside my own experience and making them convincing is probably not a skill I have developed enough to do it confidently.
I moved to Germany in 2003, which only lasted 4 months. I returned to New Zealand to recover, finish my degree and look after my mum who had been diagnosed with cancer at the time. I returned to Germany again in 2005 for good. And both times, yes, culture shock. When you are communicating in a second language, you are robbed of yourself until you learn enough words to articulate what you think feel and believe. You become what you know as “the amusing foreigner”, and it’s hard to break out of being seen as that until you get further with the language you are learning.
In terms of value sets, some culture shock too. There is an inclination in Germany to do things because they have always been done that way. It’s the weight of habit and history that we don’t have in New Zealand because it’s a colony. Most people went there to look for different ways of doing things as they weren’t happy with the way things were done in their home countries. I found that propensity difficult. At the same time, I did like some of the things that were connected to that – festivals and rituals. Old symbols that had centuries of story behind them and buildings that had tales longer than the history of even our indigenous people.
Every culture has things that you will rail against and things that are comfortable for you. Germany was a different mix of that than New Zealand. Different but no better or worse. What I enjoyed a lot, once I was able to speak the language properly, was the fact that meaning cleaves differently just by virtue of the words at your disposal. It reveals things you may not have seen before just by the nature of its structure. To this day, I find I am a slightly different character in German than I am in English. There are things I can say in one language that aren’t even on offer in the other, but there is also a directness to German that would be deemed impolite in English, for example. I can say what I think more easily because the language and culture allows it. On the flipside, it means people can be what I see as offensive, coming from an English-speaking background, but that is the other side of the same coin.
I guess the move from Germany to the UK was not as big a jump, or was it?
It was and it wasn’t! Culturally, the UK is a lot closer to New Zealand, and obviously the language barrier didn’t exist. What was difficult was that the cost of living in the UK is a lot higher. As a musician, it had been relatively comfortable surviving from music alone in Germany. In the UK, it's been tumultuous.
The hardest thing I have ever done has been to try and continue with music in the UK because the overheads are so much higher. The standard of living too, in Germany, was a lot higher than the UK, but a lot of people in the UK itself don’t like hearing that. It felt like giving up a lot in terms of comfort, ease, and security moving here. For that, the British are a LOT more accepting of different ways of life. Being a musician in Germany is often looked down on. Here that is less often the case. There is a lot more acceptance for eccentricity in the UK and I really value that.
Could you tell us a bit more about the actual writing process? I think it took you a long time to actually finish off the book. Did you set yourself specific times/days to write? Did you plan the novel in advance or let it come to you as you were writing? Did you have several drafts?
I learned a lot about structure writing Remembering the Dead. In a sense, the character closest to my own is the dragon because it had to get its head around structure but had no intuition for it. It’s actually really difficult to write a book that is about the unreliability of structure, with characters who are living in spaces outside of it, which is why it took so long. I needed to let the structure emerge because that was what the book itself was about.
Draft one was once that structure had become clear. I walked away from the book for 6 months after that, so I could forget what had gone on behind the scenes. Then I could read it again and see if the structure worked without killing the points about structure sometimes being an illusion. Draft two was strengthening that to make it easier on the reader really, because as the characters in the book depict, total lack of structure is a very uncomfortable existence, sometimes. At the end of the day, it is still fiction, so I wanted it to be readable as such and interesting enough to make the facts and philosophy in it interesting.
For the book I am working on now, I have actually started with structure. It’s planned and paced in advance, though partly because the characters in this one are all about form and function. They don’t allow anything to be unmonitored.
For the book, you followed the same DIY/independent path as for your music, i.e you did everything yourself and self-published. Could you let us know how things worked for you once you had finished the manuscript? Is there anything you’d do differently?
There is an interesting contrast between the music world, which I have been part of for over 15 years now, and the publishing world. Indie music has celebrated indie releases for probably a decade. Most people are aware that record companies will often produce uninteresting, non-innovative material because they play it safe in terms of markets. Of course, publishing houses do the same, but in the music world, so many of us have been releasing our own material for so long that no one thinks twice about it. Labels have become a tad pointless even, as the middle level ones can’t do much more in terms of marketing that you can do yourself via social networking, podcasts and online magazine connections.
In the book world, it was surprising to me that self-published work is still not as accepted as what we call "indie releases" in music. There are so many great indie books out there, that publishing houses won’t touch because it looks like a risk. As with music, a risk is just something that doesn’t look like a pre-existing idea that sold well last time. Indie publishing is the key way for new ideas in all art forms to come out. If people like things, they spread the word at a grass roots level, by word of mouth. It’s bottom up rather than top down. Top down marketing is stuff being pushed on you from above, by the sheer force of what money can buy in terms of advertising. It won’t always be pushing good things on you, but people are still attached to the idea that publishing houses pick up on all that is "good" or "worthwhile". The simple fact is, they don’t. Just like record companies, they miss interesting things that people actually might like. I’m looking forward to the publishing world catching up with the music world.
Did you actually try to submit the novel to an agent? Did it cross your mind at all, and if yes/no, why/why not? What would you say to a publisher/agent interested in your work?
I did have offers from two publishers on the book. They were both small publishing houses, who I had a lot of respect for. Sadly, as with small labels, they didn't have the resources to market the book much more than I would have on my own, and of course, releasing it through a small publisher you lose a lot of the potential income. As with music, you make such a small margin on sales that it wasn't worth it to go with those publishers.
I’m not sure what I would say if an agent approached me. I would probably be grateful as I have no contacts or connections in publishing because it’s not my field, really. I’m so busy with music that making those connections isn’t something I manage to find time for. Agents know who does what, so as long as they were an honest character with good networks, I would certainly engage with them. At the end of the day though, the most important thing is having your work pushed by someone who understands and believes in what you are doing. That would be the key ingredient for me.
How would you compare the creative processes you go through when writing your music and writing your novels?
They are such different animals. I’m not really sure where to start. What I do know is that the buzz you get when you come up with something that you like, and that does what you want it to do is just as exhilarating in both mediums for me. An author friend of mine once said "you can hide a multitude of sins in a song", and I think to some extent he was right. With prose, I pay a lot more attention to each word, and there are a stack more words!
That said, I will choose my words for similar reasons as I do with music. Depending on the sentence, rhythm may be the most important factor – meaning is always important to me, but if I have several possibilities, and you generally do in English, I will select based on rhythm, or connotation, or sound just as much as I do in a song. What I don’t have at my disposal in prose is melody or harmony, and those are valuable tools for evoking an emotional response. That means I really have to focus on how to do that with language alone.
You are a performer, and you have recorded an audio of the book. Any chance of you doing a reading one day? Is it frustrating to have written something but not to be able/have the opportunity to perform it in any way?
I actually have done live readings from the book in online libraries and cafés. I do a lot of cyber performance, as well as my European tours, as a musician. One of the places I play regularly is a virtual reality called “Second Life”. They have venues, art galleries, universities and all manner of places to perform, so yes, I have "performed" the book, it you can call it that. I wouldn’t miss NOT doing so though, as I am very nervous about my speaking voice. I can manage because of all the training of being on stage as a musician, but with writing, I don’t feel the need to perform. In fact, part of what I love about writing is that it gives you far more of a private sphere than music does. I’m an introvert and whilst I do love performing, even when you aren’t performing, you are still, in a sense, doing a performance. Posting on facebook, twitter, etc.
I don’t have the luxury of always being able to say exactly what I think because I am aware of a certain amount of responsibility that comes with people watching what you are saying. If left to my own devices, I would probably not engage with social media at all as I really do need a lot of quiet time to generate ideas. Writing is far richer in terms of quiet time. When I do retire as a musician, I look forward to being able to reconnect to that quiet.
Your latest full album, the fascinating “The Annihilation Sequence”, is set in London and tells stories of alienation at the heart of the metropolis. It is an intriguing, very cinematic world. Any plans on writing a novel set in London in that very same world you describe on the album? I for one would love to read it!
At the moment, no plans on that one, probably because I am still living in London and don’t have the emotional distance to be able to pick out what would make a good story. I am working on a novel set in Hamburg at the moment though, and probably because I am no longer living there, I finally feel confident to make something of the experience in novel form.
Now on to your current work! On Wednesday 14th May, you are releasing [CRONE], the first EP in a trilogy called “Maiden, Mother, [CRONE]”. In this trio of releases, you wish to tackle a character that actually appears in Remembering The Dead, “The Old Woman”. Could you please talk us through the ideas behind the project?
The “Crone” EP is the first release in the trilogy. I wanted it to have a certain pagan/ancient quality to it so I decided to make it entirely out of vocal loops and tribal drum sounds. I started with the crone character because she seems the most interesting to me. She is simultaneously the most free and the most marginalised. Calling her "the old woman" is deliberately unimaginative as a name because it is meant to show how we lump all “off the radar” people into one generic category, without giving them the chance to become a specific self. In this case, reflecting how we treat the elderly in society, and even just those too old to register on the radar of "attractive" in a society obsessed with beauty and youth.
“The Old Woman” does actually have a very distinct character, of course and she was one of my favourites to write in Remembering the Dead. She is political because she can be. In contrast to old mythologies though, where the old are deemed wise, in today’s society the old are often made invisible. Partly because of that, the Old Woman feels free to speak her mind. Sometimes speaking her mind gets her attention. Sometimes it results in further marginalisation. She is also somewhat angry: angry that she feels she has as much life in her as she ever had, but that her own face and body betray her – by inviting opinions to the contrary from others.
In terms of the trilogy as a whole, the themes of assessment, moral judgement, and body alteration have all been magnets for me in choosing which songs go on which EP. Some of the songs are even sung as a male protagonist, which I do fairly often when I dig up the tales of men.
In the trilogy, those songs are about that male character’s view on the central female character/archetype and what she means/represents to him. Others are sung from the protagonist’s perspective themselves, or other women reflecting (with various degrees of insight, or lack thereof) on their own situation in regards to their life stage. For the crone album though, I enjoyed her character so much they are all from her perspective.
You are very involved with technology – you work with loop machines, mix folk and industrial sounds and melodies, perform online to various web communities, “The Annihilation Sequence” was much more electronic orientated, etc.
But if one considers the content of your music and your novel, the stories behind them, the characters they depict, even the look of your videos, you are very much in love with the old, the past, history, the analogue, and most importantly human emotion and experience. Are you not worried about technology one day erasing our past, erasing our humanity, our thinking processes, imagination and creativity? Or do you think we have been gifted the tools that will free us from our day job, the influence of corporations, etc.? There is also much talk about online technology robbing musicians of their livelihood…
I don’t think the technology is what robs people of their livelihood. Technology is only ever a tool and it is humans who chose how to use it. You can use a hammer to build a house, or to injure someone, but the choice between those options is yours. It's not like technology is an atom bomb for musicians because we have been perfectly capable of starving to death since the dawn of time!
For me, technology has actually been a massive enabler. People from all over the planet can and do listen to my music and that would never have been possible before. I also play to people all around the globe, also something that would not be possible if I had to do it terrestrially. I can manage touring Europe each year but that has taken years to achieve. Playing online, you have international audiences immediately.
The real issue, I think, is awareness. For all the communication technology allows, many people don’t get the connection between supporting indie music (by buying albums, and tipping at online performances) and the fact that that support has a direct and immediate impact on that musician’s ability to continue doing what they do.
I don’t have anything against people pirating my music to see if they like it. If they really truly like it though, and they continue only to pirate all of what I do, and never tip at shows, there will come a time I can no longer sustain producing that music they like. Musicians spend hours preparing for shows, even online, and put a huge amount of energy into making sure people have fun, and get a good show and sound.
We also live pretty much hand to mouth, if we are indie musos. I’m not the only musician out there who is constantly negotiating the fine line between survival and disaster. I have been homeless twice because of being unable to perform for periods of time, or low sales, or touring risks not paying off. Technology makes it possible for musicians to get music out there, and it makes it possible for listeners to find things they like that they otherwise would not have found.
The missing link is the awareness that the 4 quid you spend on an artist’s digital EP makes a world of difference. I have actually had to stop performing on certain platforms online before as the crowds there don’t make this connection. Web cam shows, for example, take up about 3 hours of time in total to advertise, prep, light, and perform. Many people go there, enjoy themselves a lot, but don’t consider that for full-time musicians, performance and sales are the only way we can pay rent. Those 3 hours have to generate some income or we simply can’t put in the time.
Fortunately there are communities online where they really do, heart and soul, get what goes on behind the scenes. I am very lucky to have some true supporters, who make my music possible.
I think you have managed to ditch the day job to work full-time on your projects. What kind of advice would you have for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
God. Really, I would probably just say "don’t". If I had known how hard this would be, I would probably not have done it, but I’m a terribly stubborn person, and I also happen to be very bad at 9 to 5. It sucks my will to live, so I have to pay the price for not doing 9 –5. There are months on end where the stress of your financial situation makes it very hard to concentrate on writing, and you are often chasing the smallest scraps of cash just to survive. It’s kind of like bailing water out of a sinking ship, and trying to find the time to build another ship while you are doing it. As I say, things have fallen apart badly on two occasions since I went full-time 5 years ago. I knew the potential for that when I started, though.
In terms of practical advice, I would say to choose a place to live with low overheads so that when things do get tough you have a buffer. In the UK, there really isn’t anywhere where those overheads are actually low enough to make it easy in any sense, unless you want to live someplace like Bolton and I would never recommend that!
In Germany and Poland, it is much easier because rents are controlled, and if it comes to that, I will head back there, but I’m hoping not to have to.
The reason for going full-time is so that I do have the time to try and build things and take it to a level where that discomfort is not so ever present. The catch 22 is that you need a great deal of time to do non-musical things in order to get things to a better level in terms of career. I spend 4 hours a day doing emails and admin, and that is usually 7 days a week. I’m a soloist which makes it harder, so advice there would be: if you are in a band, delegate. As a soloist, you do your own videos, photos, press, website, blog, recordings, mixing, artwork, newsletter, posters, booking, scouting for shows, scouting for radio play, social media. It’s a 10 hour day if you are lucky, and 18 when you’re on deadline for anything.
If there is anything you are as passionate about as music, do that instead, but if it is your passion, respect. One thing never to forget is that your listeners are also your support. Always treat them well and with the respect they deserve for being open to new music and for caring enough about the arts to make it happen.
Finally, could you let us know about future projects beyond the trilogy, and give us some live event dates? (Will you be performing with The Eden House at Alt-Fest? I’ll be there!)
The next two EPs from the trilogy will come out in August (just before Alt Fest) and November. There will also be an audio book release of Remembering the Dead in June/July.
I'm working on a novel for next year called "The Money Tree" which is set in Germany. The protagonist is a Polish national, desperate to withdraw from a society that has forced a certain kind of identity on him by virtue of his nationality and background. He is obsessed with a tree that starts pushing through the walls of his room once a mysterious visitor arrives proclaiming to be his brother. Again, it deals with themes of identity and isolation, and the influence history/culture has on who we are allowed to be.
In terms of events, there is the official EP launch party on May 23rd at the Garage in Highbury Islington in London. We are starting at midnight as Nine Inch Nails are playing that night and we want people to be able to get to both as it’s a gig and party, with industrial music after the show. [See also the list of dates underneath the interview].
And finally: What are your (literary or otherwise) influences? What are you reading at the moment?
Musical: Laurie Anderson, Imogen Heap, Killing Joke, Ministry, 16 Horsepower/Wovenhand, Steeleye Span, Nine Inch Nails, Fever Ray, Sigur Rós, Bob Dylan…
Literary: The authors that have had a huge impact on me have been Keri Hulme, Phillip Pullman, Louis de Bernières, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Sebold, Albert Camus, Diana Wynne Jones, and Elizabeth Knox.
Right now I am reading "Der Richter und sein Henker" by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, though it's just as much to keep my German fresh as it is to try and get through some of the classics. Strangely I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction at the moment and am concentrating on Polish books for kids to try and get better at the language. I'm also reading a tech manual on mixing tips for the home studio by Mike Senior, which I think is the most useful book on mixing I have ever read. I’ve been reading it for a year, because I keep going back to the pertinent parts each time I have to record and mix!
You can read more about the background to the book and get your copy (hard copy or e-book) ofRemembering the dead HERE.
The first EP of the Maiden, Mother [CRONE] trilogy can be purchased HERE, (also read the interesting background to the project.
Watch below the video Jordan has made about Remembering The Dead:
Jordan’s 2014 touring dates:
May 23, London (The Garage) – official EP launch gig and party
May 31, London (Electrowerkz) – gig with Sigue Sigue Sputnik and The Memepunks
August 2nd, Leeds (The Library) – gig with Inkubus Sukkubus
August 15th, Alt-Fest festival, [vocals for The Eden House]
October, German tour, dates TBC:
October 18th, Leipzig, Germany (Runes and Men Festival) – festival gig with Rome, Spiritual Front and many more
October 25th, Lodz, Poland (Soundedit) – gig and workshops with guest speakers Steve Albini, Karl Bartos and more
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