scarecrow interviews

Monday, February 14, 2005


Ellis Sharp...

Reading Ellis Sharp is a literary experience unlike no other. He stands alone. His work is fiercely independent and original. He is, arguably, this country's only true avant-garde writer. His most recent collection of shorts, Aria Fritta, published by Zoilus Press, can be found here. In the meantime you can read this, scarecrow Editor Lee Rourke was fortunate enough to have sent this elusive writer of modern fiction some questions to answer, here are the results:

Lee Rourke: Ellis, you have had more short story collections published than novels, is this out of necessity or a deeper profound love of the shorter form?

Ellis Sharp: The first piece I ever wrote was a short story at primary school. A rocket ship went to the moon. Half way there a flying saucer flew past. This surprised the astronauts. The End. So maybe the form has always had some deep-rooted attraction. Not to mention science fiction. I read a lot of skiffy in my teenage years, then I lost interest, and over the past decade or so I've been drawn back to it, though only in a random, fragmentary way. Contemporary science fiction often seems to have a stylistic and imaginative energy and a fierce political engagement that is lacking in the timid, plodding middle-of-the-road social realist novel.

Short fiction has the advantage of being something that's much easier to write in a single blaze of inspiration. But I wouldn't say I preferred short fiction to novels. The inner logic of the material I write about seems to dictate its own length. The pieces in my first two collections, The Aleppo Button (1991) and Lenin's Trousers (1992) are significantly longer than in the last two, Driving My Baby Back Home (1999) and Aria Fritta (2004). I might one day write a volume of very, very, VERY short pieces. David Foster Wallace's five-sentence story "A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life" is strangely inspiring. Thank you "Scarecrow", for encouraging me to read him.

LR: Your fiction is idiosyncratic yet utterly mesmerizing, awkward and hilariously funny, have you always approached your prose-style in this manner, or is it a style you have gradually developed?

ES: At first I tried writing conventional fiction - plot, characters, cute wrapped-up endings. I wasn't getting anywhere. It felt dead inside. Then I suddenly thought: what the hell. I'm going to write what I want to write rather than try to compete with the mainstream social realist novel. The stories came tumbling out - surreal, digressive, going into strange places. It wasn't a style that was developed over a period of time, or with conscious intention or practise. It just seemed to happen.

LR: Politics is intrinsically entwined within every aspect of your work; do/would you describe yourself a writer of political fiction? And do you feel a writer of fiction has a place in the realm of political commentary?

ES: Much of what I've written has been political satire. In that sense it is unequivocally political fiction. But I'd like to think most of it has more going for it than just topicality. "The Bloating of Nellcock" (in The Aleppo Button) was an attack on Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who is now a marginal, unimportant, increasingly forgotten figure. But Nellcock has a life of his own as a grotesque fictional creation whose misadventures have a comic reality, long after the original inspiration has faded from view. In that sense I'd rather be seen as a comic writer rather than simply a political one. And although my longest book, Unbelievable Things, has a strong political component, I'd rather it was seen as a big, ambitious novel (or as an anti-novel) rather than be pigeonholed as "political fiction".

Classic political fiction is often good-hearted but one-dimensional in form. For example, I admire Victor Serge's fiction through gritted teeth - I much prefer his non-fictional writings. As for fiction writers and the realm of political commentary: that's up to the individual writer, I think. I like it when writers I admire stick their heads above the parapet. There seems to be a cultural expectation that writers should give us their views, seen in books like "Authors Take Sides on the Iraq War". An issue like the invasion of Iraq certainly flushes out the slippery liberals and the raving, rancid right.

LR: Our current epoch ostensibly drives a barbed pole through your heart, is all this imperious human folly good for your mental health?

ES: Deranged and obsessive? Moi? My psychiatrist says you're not to upset me otherwise she'll have to double my medication. But rage and spleen seem quite useful, if you're writing political satire.

LR: Shades of Burroughs and B. S. Johnson can be found in your work. Who are your literary influences?

ES: Sterne has to be number one. I made a pilgrimage to Coxwold years ago, when Shandy Hall had been renovated more or less single-handedly by an amateur Sterne obsessive. To be in the same room where much of "Tristram Shandy" was written! My heart still tingles at the memory. It was a very small room, which was oddly inspiring too. I also paid a reverent visit to Sterne's grave. Only later did I learn that it was empty.

Apart from Burroughs and Johnson, the early fiction of Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme made a big impact. They were influences in the sense of showing that fiction could be surreal and bizarre and just as revelatory as a finely crafted account of a middle class family in Penge.

I've also read a lot of P.K. Dick. But non-fiction also feeds in too. I like fringe rubbish, weird and crazy theories, obscure biographies, old medical textbooks. The more way-out the better. I also watch a lot of movies. David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive" are extraordinary films. In movies as in novels, I like narratives that you want to go back to time and time again, finding new meanings, new depths.

LR: Do you receive much feedback from your readership? Who is the archetypal Ellis Sharp reader?

ES: Not a lot. I was thrilled when a North American reader naively identified me with one of my narrators and denounced me as "sickening". Some smart people have concluded that the surrealist twists of my imagination derive from ingesting prodigious quantities of drugs. One or two typesetting errors have been kindly drawn to my attention (most, I think, I am grimly aware of). One reader urged me to listen to "Weezer". I duly did so. An amazing band! I look forward keenly to their new album.

The archetypal Sharp reader is obviously a thin, pale, waif-like creature who inhabits a rented room in a bad part of town and keeps the curtains drawn, has excellent taste in literature, lives amid a chaos of paperbacks and dust, drinks too much, may have some form of involvement with substances that would displease the Chief Constable, does not regard Tony Blair as a sincere, caring kind of guy, and only emerges after dark. From time to time some form of political protest may be called for. Marches, criminal trespass, flyposting, stickers on lamp posts, that kind of thing. Music can also be heard playing - something deranged, edgy, melancholic.

LR: Charles Bukowski once opined that in order to be a writer one must avoid all other writers. You have a unique knack of attacking everything that is current, while your prose-style remains as distant to the literary status quo as it can possibly be. You are a mysterious individual who likes to shun the limelight, when wider recognition gradually appears, and it inevitably will, where will this take you? Will it be something you'll be able to embrace or will it drive you even further away from literary norms?

ES: Bukowski! The charming photographs in "The Buk Book: Musings on Charles Bukowski" by Jim Christy (ECW Press, Toronto, 1997) are a constant reminder that a life of writing on the edge can, in the end, yield unexpected surprises. It would be more accurate to say that the limelight shuns me, than that I shun it. But if it did, I would. I am a tense, nervous character who would perform badly on television. I have no yearnings to wear a bow-tie and make speeches. My natural habitats are the shadows and the gutter. As for writers. It's true I avoid them. A terrifying species. A few months ago I was in a crowded room at the back of Oxford Circus when I spotted China Mièville. He was much, much taller than I expected him to be. He looked like a pirate. I edged quickly back into the darkness and accepted another glass of red wine from a passing bar girl, the words "I liked your piece in this week's Socialist Worker" congealing in my hot wet throat.

The future? My style won't change, it's too rooted now. But it's not a style that's ever going to make the "3 for 2" pile in Waterstones - leastways, not in society as presently constituted. Commercial success does seem to corrupt some writers, or at least pressure them into writing stuff that seems false to their talent. I don't think Vox was Nicholson Baker's finest hour. But it doesn't do that to everyone. I don't think fame or wealth have in any way changed Iain Banks's radical politics or the way in which it informs his fiction. Another example is James Ellroy. He doesn't just go on producing the same old product, the way some successful crime writers do. "The Cold Six Thousand" strikes me as being a brave and innovative book to serve up to the consumers of popular crime fiction. And writers on the margins, if they are truly any good, eventually find a wider audience. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joyce, Beckett - and of course Mr Bukowski himself.
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