Interview by Rupert Dastur
In your interview with Thresholds, you write that ‘When you try to write topically, you risk losing the signal for the noise, whereas finding echoes of present disorders in the disorders of the past helps us to locate ourselves now.’ Do you feel there are echoes of the past that represent today’s turmoil and how are you responding to this as a writer?
The idiotic crises of the present are so beset with echoes of the past that I fear for my eardrums – don’t you? The weakness of western liberalism in the face of billionaire geeks and the gangster capitalists – from Putin to the Mercers – exploiting their innovations carries a whiff of the 1930s, when the high ideals of the League of Nations failed, isolationism and nationalism devoured democracy, and demagogues embraced radio and cinema to brainwash the people. Of course, we must not draw glib parallels: today’s fascists have the cunning not to wear jackboots, and the past does not repeat itself because the conditions in which history occurred alters. What doesn’t appear to alter is our species’ capacity to get shit-faced every few decades. Maybe that’s what the present disorders represent: a return to the normal condition of society after an unusually long (for those of us in the West) period of lawfulness and stability.
So, how does one write topically without becoming dated (it takes two to three years to write a novel) or slipping into polemic? Writers since Virgil, at least, and certainly Shakespeare, have written about the anxieties of their age by setting their fictions in the past, whence a certain distance, and some capacity for perspective, are possible. To hijack Emily Dickinson’s famous phrase, you tell the present slant, by echo and analogy. Of course, the turpitude and stupidity of Trump, or the self-mutilating nostalgia behind Brexit, offer an embarrassment of riches to a satirist. Armando Iannucci’s recent film, The Death of Stalin, is hilarious and terrifying in its depiction of life on the event horizon of the Red Tsar, and you cannot decently compare Trump with Stalin, yet that mixture of laughter in the dark and grotesquery seems apposite for the worst administration in US history, whose consequences we can only attempt to anticipate.
Another challenge for the novelist at a time of multiple crises is simply, how to fit all of this into a narrative? Unless you fancy sprawling over a thousand pages, you have to narrow your focus. Hence the appeal of choosing a particular place and moment in history, or a single historical figure confronting the disorders of his or her age. You must leave it to the reader to spot any parallels with the present. This seems to me the best way of avoiding didacticism.
My last point on this topic, about which I could bang on for ages, is that literary fiction need not set itself impossible tasks, such as summarizing the world or bringing about political change. Fiction is a shared dream, a locus of resistance perhaps. It is not, however, a policy platform.
In a recording with Short Story EU, you mention that one of the obvious differences between a novel and short story is that the latter can be written in much shorter time – two or three weeks – could you expand on the differences in process and, as an author of both novels and collections, how you hop form long to short form?
I wish I were capable of ‘hopping’ as a writer.
I tend to know quite soon whether an idea has the legs to make a story or a novel. It’s to do, I suppose, with the latent capacity or scope of the conceit. A story often grows out of a single incident, a moment that speaks for a life or part of it, the particularities of one of two characters. The joy of the short story is that you can bring this potential to fruition within a few days or weeks. It’s like coaxing a flower from seed. Whereas the novel – to pursue this rather ridiculous analogy – is more like a tree, a slow accretion of rings, so to speak, the ramifying of plot points and characters. A novel casts more shade in the world, but it may not be more memorable or resonant than a short story.
Practically, the scale of the form dictates aspects of process. A novel requires more research, and there are more wrong turnings to take. You may want to devote yourself early to the details, but instead you have to keep the architecture from collapsing. You are busy consolidating teetering walls of narrative with subplot buttressing, or scooping out deeper foundations of research to support the edifice. (It occurs to me that William Golding’s great novel The Spire offers a potent metaphor for the construction of a novel.) I’m overdoing the analogy, but you get my point: the novel is unwieldy, whereas the short story can be spry and elegant. You may approach perfection in the short form – if by that word we understand a condition where every sentence is in its proper place, cohering with others to create something that cannot be altered without a loss of integrity. Whereas the novel is defined by its scale and its imperfections. It’s the difference between a sculpture and a building. There may be interesting rooms and features in the latter, but you cannot perceive or appreciate it as a whole.
Last year you brought out a phenomenal collection of short stories with Comma Press – The Ghost Who Bled and I’d be interested to know how you put the collection together – what considerations came into things like selection, story order, title choice etc.
You’re very kind.
My first collection of short stories, which almost no one has read, I wrote very much as a collection. With Thumbnails (Vagabond Voices, 2013), I was setting myself the challenge of creating tiny narratives in a variety of often unprepossessing forms. I wanted these micro-stories to have a cumulative power, and poured my hopes, fears and passions into them in the hope that these would come across, at least obliquely, to the reader. The Ghost Who Bled, on the other hand, is a miscellany, bringing together the least bad stories I have written over twenty years. My editor at the time at Comma Press, Jim Hinks, did a great job of persuading me to jettison the weaker candidates, and I wrote a couple of new stories at his suggestion, until the collection felt right. I settled on a selection and an ordering of stories by instinct, arranging and rearranging the pieces on the floor of my office until they seemed to fit together.
As far as titles are concerned, these tend to come quite early in the writing process. To some degree, they provide the parameters for the story. I struggled, however, to find a summarizing title for the collection, and weakly settled on the title of one of the more successful pieces to represent the whole.
Earlier this year you released the novel The Devil’s Highway which comprises three different narratives in one location (Bagshot Heath, Surrey) – was this the intention all along and given the relatively unconventional nature of the book’s makeup, was there any resistance?
The Devil’s Highway was always going to be tripartite – the past, the present and the future united by topographical and thematic contexts. I wrote the three sections separately – the futuristic one, so nakedly influenced by Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, first, followed by the ancient narrative, set early in the Roman occupation of Britain, and culminating with the present-day narrative, which I had to rewrite twice before I got it right.
I was unsure, literally for years, how to order the three sections of the novel, and submitted them to Helen Garnons-Williams at 4th Estate as three consecutive novellas. Helen suggested I splice them together in short interleaved episodes. I agonized over how or where to make these joins, but I think the result has been worth it. So no resistance from my editor – quite the contrary.
The Independent has called you an eco-activist and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this more widely, how it filters into your writing, and whether you think we really are at the point of no return.
I think I was more of an activist ten years ago when the Independent journalist interviewed me. I was living in Edinburgh and risking a thick lip putting fake parking tickets on gas-guzzlers on the streets of New Town. These days, I’m less given to fruitless confrontation and more interested in trying to reconcile my environmentalism with my practice as a writer. By this I mean attempting to find narratives that encompass where we are as beings intent on destroying our life-support systems. Climate breakdown and the degradation of the biosphere are hyper-objects too vast for us to contemplate. They are planetary predicaments, tragic in structure – the hubris of our species defying the laws of nature, the nemesis of ecological collapse, the pity and fear that this ought to instill in us – yet too enormous to contain within the small-scale narratives of our inner and domestic lives. The dominant stories of our culture are morbid: they are creating the conditions for our self-destruction. What, then, are the stories that can help us make sense of this time, and perhaps lay foundations for our survival?
I don’t have answers, only glimpses of ways forward. This is why I am so interested in the Dark Mountain Project: a forum where writers, artists and thinkers interrogate the faulty narratives of our culture and seek healthier, saner ones that might help us through a time of collapse. I am currently guest editing a series of essays for the Dark Mountain blog on the possibly recherché theme of ‘Rewilding the Novel’. I would encourage your readers to visit Dark Mountain if these issues interest or trouble them.
As for the big question – is it already too late? My answer is probably, if we are still holding out hope that present conditions can be perpetuated. Yet what choice do we have, in the face of our collective mortality, save to sing our hymns to life?
Four quick-fire questions to finish up…
What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given?
People tend not to give me writing advice: they see the look on my face and back away muttering. The only instruction I have been given, albeit indirectly, added up to ‘write what you need to write, not what you think will please.’
Your three desert island books?
Well, Shakespeare’s Complete Works would keep me busy, and I could play all the parts. A poetry anthology would be essential – perhaps the Norton or The Rattle Bag: things to learn by heart and keep my mind from turning to mush. As for fiction: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, because only marooning on a desert island will get me to knuckle down and read the wonderful, monstrous thing.
Literary figure you’d like to have dinner with?
Since we’re playing fantasy scenarios, I’d resurrect Patrick Leigh Fermor as he was in his vigorous sixties. Though it would have to be dinner at his house in Kardamyli.
Works in the pipeline?
A graphic novel based on the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne (you can spot my unerring commercial instincts), a non-fiction travelogue with haiku, some ghost stories, a couple of novels. With luck, these should keep me busy for a few years.
And lastly, other than to ask our readers to buy your books, if you were given a podium to the world, what parting words would you offer?
Try Not To Be Dicks.
Thank you, Gregory. It’s been a pleasure.
Gregory Norminton is a novelist, actor, playwright, and environmental activist, born in 1976. Several short stories and dramatisations have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and he has completed a short story collection THE POISON TREE. He was on the Iowa International Writers Programme, and Writer in Residence at Magdalene, Cambridge. His books are SHIP OF FOOLS, GHOST PORTRAIT, SERIOUS THINGS and most recently THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY which was published in January 2018. You can find more about Gregory by visiting his website here.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
Submit an interview to TSS.
Support TSS Publishing by subscribing to our limited edition chapbooks.