scarecrow interviews

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Tony O'Neill Interview: Getting it down...

Scarecrow contributor Tony O'Neill's debute novel Digging The Vein has just been published by Contemporary Press, New York's burgeoning Independent Publisher. Quite frankly the novel is a triumph. It is published over here in July by Wrecking Ball Press. Digging The Vein is sure to become a classic of it's genre and sits comfortly beside Algren, Burroughs, Carroll et al. It is a novel that will have an impact on many, many readers. It is with great pleasure to introduce to you Tony O'Neill:

Lee Rourke: When and where was Digging the Vein written?

Tony O'Neill: I started writing Digging the Vein in London in early 2003. I had reached a point in my life were I felt as if I had hit a brick wall in many respects. I made the decision to come off of methadone and heroin because my life was a complete fucking mess. I had stopped writing altogether back in LA when I first got strung out. But back in London I was in a new relationship – with a non-addict – and suddenly my perception of myself started to alter radically. Up until then I had completely embraced the persona of the full-on junkie. That was all I aspired to being. I thought that anything else was a sell-out. I had abandoned music and all of the arts in favour of what I saw as the truest art form there was – getting high. But after Vanessa and I got together there was a real discord there between what I perceived of myself and how I really felt. Travelling to New York was one of the big deal breakers. Having to beg and cajole my clinic to give me enough methadone for the 7-day visit. In the end they refused and I had to buy a large amount of stuff off the black market and take it with me in a mouthwash bottle. I really felt like the walls were closing in on me and I wanted my freedom back. So that’s when I decided to try and withdraw from methadone again – and that’s why I started writing the book. The book – at the start – was literally something to do while I was detoxing. Something to keep me sane. And I started writing about incidents that I wasn’t proud of in my life, almost to purge them out of my system. And after a rickety start, I felt the words start to come. I felt like a retired boxer going back in the ring for one last fight. It started to come easier and easier. At the start I was sat by the computer, you know, in tears. Dope-sick. Shaking. Throwing up into trashcans. And getting it down a fucking word at a time. The depression lasted months. Months and months. And I wrote through it. There was no thought of publishing it at the start. It was just to keep myself sane. But once it started coming I couldn’t stop. I took a job at a music store in the basement of the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street, when Vanessa was pregnant with Nico. And I’d disappear off, grab a bottle of cough medicine from the Boots around the corner, drink enough to feel normal and sit in the café during my lunch break writing the book onto napkins, or pieces of paper stolen out of the boss’s office. Then I’d go home and transcribe ‘em. And my excitement was building and building – and even though at the time it didn’t feel like it – my system was returning to normality for the first time in years. I finished the book 2 nights before Nico was born. And there it was – I had two babies.

LR: Can you talk about your past life as a musician? Have you always written, even when touring, and can the two disciplines ever be compared?

T O'N: My time as a musician was certainly an interesting one. I got the gig playing keyboards for Marc Almond 2 days before I was due to start university. I didn’t show up, went to London for the audition instead. My stint in Kenickie ran pretty much parallel as Marc wasn’t playing too many live shows at the time. I could never do it for a living again. It encouraged all of the worst, most excessive parts of me. For me being a musician was unrelenting. You’d be touring for extended periods of time and it was all one big party. Then you’d be dropped off at home and have months of nothing. So you’d get wasted to fill the time in. Lauren, Emma and Marie from Kenickie were some of the coolest people I’d ever met. Really good people. Marc, well he was one of the brightest most fascinating people I have ever come across. But the label people, and my manager, and a lot of the peripheral people were fucking scumbags. Over in LA when I was playing it was always the business people who were the problem. So far I find writing to be far more satisfying if only on the superficial level of I don’t have to deal with a bunch of bastard cocksuckers to finish a book. Unless you’re U2, try and record an album for a major label, and you’ll have people in there and interfering on every level from morning to night. I suppose I have the benefit of being with people like Contemporary Press, who are a new outfit and genuinely good people who believe in the book. They are – in the most positive sense – the exact opposite of what dealing with a major house would be like. They go with their gut and they aren’t afraid to take risks. They were publishing kind of neo-pulp stuff, and took my book on even though it didn’t exactly fit into that mould. And that’s what makes a great company – they aren’t afraid, they take risks and they go with their gut. The UK edition is coming out on Wrecking Ball Press and it’s the same deal. They’re independent, they’re young, and they’re risk takers. I don’t have the energy to spend on people like my old managers any more. I’d rather go to fucking jail that be involved in the music industry again.

I was writing a lot before and during my time on the road. But I never had the time or the drive to follow through. And most of what I was writing was piss poor, in retrospect. I hadn’t hit upon the revelation: write what you know. I was always aping my heroes. I suppose it wasn’t until I was in a situation were I had nothing but a blank page in front of me and what felt like no way out, that I was able to produce something that I could be proud of.

LR: Your writing has been compared to Dan Fante, how does this sit with you and where do you feel the comparisons begin and end?

T O'N: Well, that’s a big compliment as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know who compared us – and it certainly wasn’t me, I wouldn’t dare – but I suppose any comparison might come from our emotional honesty. I wasn’t looking to glorify myself, or make myself look good. It was simply a matter of telling my story the best way I could. I had already started writing my book when I first read Dan Fante’s stuff, and I suppose the big drive it gave me was that it proved that good books – great books – were still getting published by someone. Because up until then all of my favourite authors were either dead or past their prime. So Chump Change – and all of the others – were kind of a revelation for me in that sense. But I feel that we’re different writers – we deal with different themes… but also, I’d hope that someone who really liked Dan’s writing might dig my stuff too.

LR: Whose writing could you seriously not live without?

T O'N: Well, for me the greatest is still William Burroughs. I have to be careful not be influenced too much by his style because it’s so distinctive, but his stuff… I can just dip in and out of my well-read copy of say Naked Lunch or Soft Machine and experience something new every time. I’ll never get tired of reading his stuff. I know there’s so much stuff tied up in the legend or the persona of the man, but strip all of that away and you still have one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

LR: There is an underlying soundtrack running through Digging The Vein; do any particular songs say more to you than, say, a work of literary fiction ever could?

T O'N: Oh sure. They hit you in a different way. Some music is so literary – yet something about that perfect juxtaposition of words and music is incredibly powerful. There’s something more visceral about it. They say something different to me than a work of literary fiction could, but that works vice versa too. But some of the best stuff of say The Clash, Lou Reed… I mean ‘Berlin’ is one of my favourite albums, so stunning and literary in its scope. And the music is perfect, perfect. Or Tom Waits. His stuff can be as evocative of a time and a place as any work of literature. But that said there’s no musical comparison for something like Celine, or Burroughs, Fante either. I dunno, I can only think of the 2 being exactly comparable in a negative sense. Say Coldplay and Zadie Smith.

LR: The James Frey debacle. Discuss?

T O'N: Well that’s a funny one for me. I’d never heard of James Frey and then I came to the states and suddenly everybody’s talking about this book about an ex-addict who quit without the aid of AA or NA… which was unusual in this kind of book and similar territory to my own… and then he’s on Oprah, and then he’s number one… and I tried to read the book, but… I don’t like that kind of stuff. I never wanted mine marketed as a memoir, it’s too obvious and it takes some of the art out of it for me. I mean Bukowski’s novels were broadly autobiographical, but they weren’t sold as memoirs. This insistence of labelling books like this shows more about the lack of imagination of modern readers and publishers than anything else. But after picking up the book I really didn’t like his writing, and it boggled my mind all the attention he was getting. And then, boom, it all collapses around him. It’s hard to pick sides because I have no more sympathy for the Oprah side of the argument that I have for Frey. I mean, fuck Oprah Winfrey, it’s sad to me that in America a book goes to number one because a fucking chat show host endorses it. I mean who cares what she thinks? And then for her to act as if Frey personally insulted her by lying in the book… I was just struck by how ugly and massive her ego is. But Frey, I think he’s a second rate writer to be frank, and I think the things he lied about are so petty as to be comical. Acting like he was a hard man because to took on some cops and spent a week in jail. Listen, if you’re a crack head you ain't gonna do NOTHING that’s gonna get between you and your next pipe. Nothing. Certainly not punching a fucking cop who has got a gun. Yes, the cops are assholes, but you still call them sir and play nice because unless you’ve got a bigger gun than them you ain't gonna win. I ate shit from the cops plenty, because my m.o. – and every junkie’s m.o. - is to get away without incident, go home and go fix. And I wasn’t afraid to put it in the book. When a cop kicked my ass outside of the emergency room I did nothing. Nothing. Because he’d either have shot me or locked me up. I stayed on my knees until he left and then I split. Why recast that in my book to make me look like some kind of hard man? I don’t have anything to prove to anyone reading my book. When you’re in the street drug scene in LA for a while, you don’t have to make shit up. The truth is bad enough.

LR: What next? Are you working on anything else? Many of your short stories and poems have been published both sides of the Atlantic (including here at scarecrow), are you currently compiling any collections for publication?

T O'N: I’m compiling a poetry collection for the US on a really great new indie press called Burning Shore Press, based out of Long Beach, CA. They’re putting out Dan Fante’s plays and they put out a really outstanding novel called “Heaping Stones” by a guy called Rob Woodard. So I was flattered that they wanted to put out my poetry, because I know poetry collections are not an easy sell. So in a way the poems evolved the same way my book did – I was just writing for myself. I again had no hopes of getting them published. But they give me a lot of satisfaction to write and now I’m very excited about the book (“Songs From The Shooting Gallery”). In the UK a really talented writer called Heidi James is starting a publishing house called Social Disease and we’re putting together a collection of poems and short stories. That one is still evolving because the material just keeps coming and so the title is still up in the air. But Heidi is a really great writer – extensively published on the web and in literary magazines – so it was very flattering for her to approach me about this. My big thing is my next novel. I’m trying to move away from writing about my own life and want to use those themes to create something much more expansive and challenging. I started work on a follow up; I’m about a third in. The interest in Digging the Vein has been a big motivating factor. I feel very proud and very lucky to even have a book out there – it’s such a tough industry. But I’ve always had that kind of pit pull attitude about things – I’m constantly pushing my stuff, looking for angles. Being a junkie was the best apprenticeship I could have asked for. I simply hustle like my next bag of smack is depending on it. I hustle relentlessly. And I’ve got to say, along with raising a daughter, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done with my life.

LR: Tony, thanks for your time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Mark SaFranko Interview: Hating Olivia...

Someone did a sales job on me on Mark SaFranko’s book Hating Olivia. “Oh you’re into Bukowski, Fante, Celine, those guys? You’ll LOVE Hating Olivia “ -- that type of thing. You know how it is: I thought that they were talking the book up as everyone in the publishing world does. Everyone wants to think that this book or that book is the best thing since the last great thing. The guys who published Hating Olivia seemed to know their stuff though. We got talking about the book after a long email correspondence about writing. So I trusted their taste more than most, and my curiosity was piqued.

What I expected from the book was another good Bukowski facsimile at best, at worst another piss poor attempt at imitating the work of the greats. What I received was a book which stands proudly alongside the giants: a book so packed with blood, poetry, heart and pain that I could barely believe, after I put it down, that the author wasn’t a household name already.

The book starts with a line that later earns a distinct ring of irony “The war was over.” You see the book is the story of a man at war -- with himself, with the woman he loves, with the world in general. Hating Olivia is the story of Max, a struggling writer living on the breadline in a roach infested rooming house, and the destructive love affair he begins with the mysterious, troubled Olivia.

This is a book that doesn’t need the kind of bravado and liberal exaggeration that something like the work of James Frey needed to find publication. It is a book of quiet horrors and beautifully expressed longing. Whether describing the attempted extraction of a still wriggling cockroach from the ear cavity of a screaming fellow lodger, or the endless, burning rage of an abused and abusive lover, SaFranko’s prose is precise, flawless and the work of a man who truly loves and understands great writing. To be a fan of Mark SaFranko is to belong to an exclusive club: to appreciate the work of a man who is a truly great American writer, yet who has not been commodified, exploited and repackaged for the masses. Yet, that is.

I was lucky enough to get to interview Mark about Hating Olivia and his varied body of work. Take a look:

Q. So Mark, tell me a little about the history of Hating Olivia. How did you come to write the book?

A. The events in Hating Olivia happened at a really nasty, ugly, critical time for me. Frankly, I’m lucky I survived them. I think I had a mental breakdown and was hanging by a thread, but nobody put me away. Then the thread got cut and I went into free fall. That’s when I became a writer.

The book itself has quite a long history, actually. I couldn’t even go near the material for ten years after the events. I always felt it was going to be a novel, but I just wasn’t ready to deal with it. Then, when I did, I couldn’t get the voice right. There were a couple of false starts a few years apart. The problem was trying to get too much in…. I ended up having to toss out enormous amounts of material. It wasn’t until I shortened the sentences that it began to work. I was sitting there looking at the Hudson from my apartment in Hoboken when I said to myself, “Ah. That’s it.”

Part of the problem of course is the deficit in attention span, These days, unless you can make something move, you’re pretty much dead as a writer, especially if you’re not Stephen King or somebody like that. So much, both internal and external, has to be sacrificed to pace. I don’t think Henry Miller or lots of other people could get their stuff into print today.

Then there was the time between writing the novel and publication – about nine years. In the U.S. I couldn’t even get anyone to look at it. One New York micropublisher agreed to publish it, then backed out. TF Editors in Spain was going to put it out, but then changed their mind. Pretty typical, I guess.

Q. The writing in Hating Olivia really suggests that you have had plenty of first-hand experience of being a struggling writer, of the dehumanizing effect of the corporate world…which period of your life did you draw from when writing Olivia?

A. An early, very, very confused one. I’m still confused as hell, but back then I was really fucked-up. On every level. I could barely function most of the time, but I had to get out there and work. Whether it was the factory or the office, you had to do it to make the monthly nut. I could say that I think my brains were still scrambled from the hallucinogenics I took once upon a time, but there were a lot more things involved. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to be an artist. Coming from my blue-collar background that was like announcing that I was planning to fly to the planet Mercury. I’d already been writing, music, then I decided to compound my misery by writing books. And that’s when my struggles really began – about thirty years’ worth.

Q. Could you tell me a little more about the other novels? I found 2 by searching the net – Hopler’s Statement and The Favor. Are they in the same autobiographical vein as Hating Olivia or are they separate entities altogether?

A. They're both crime novels, actually, and different from Hating Olivia. They had their merits, I think, but no one actually ever saw them, really. Hopler's Statement was optioned by an independent Hollywood director, I wrote a screenplay for it, and nothing ever happened. The Favor is going on 30 years old. I shudder to think of its youthful flaws, but there are some people who like it.

Q. In his introduction Dan Fante paints you as something of a workhorse. I have this impression of you from reading his intro that you are literally dragging boxfuls of genius, unpublished novels and plays around with you. How close to the truth is this?

A. Well, the workhorse part is true. There are a dozen novels or so, a dozen plays, a couple hundred songs, a hundred stories, poems, a few essays. Oh, and paintings. And I’ve done a fair amount of acting. All this is sandwiched between the survival jobs. And believe me, there have been lots of those.

But a good deal of the material has been published. Around fifty of the stories, some of the poems, a couple of the novels. Lots of the plays have been produced in Off-Off Broadway theaters and in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Q. Talking of your theatre work, you are a pretty successful playwright. Can you tell me a little about how writing for theatre is different from writing straight fiction? Do you get more satisfaction from one than the other?

A. There is no feeling whatsoever for a writer like seeing his work come to life in front of an audience. It’s electric. The problem is having to deal with everyone else involved – mostly the people who decide whether or not to produce your stuff. That can be hell and enough to make you want to walk away from it for good. I’ve always wanted to write novels and stories, though. When you sit in your room alone with your typewriter, you’re king. You can do whatever you want. Nobody can say “do this, change that.” You’re the Lord of All Creation, at least for a few hours.

Q. Tell me about Lounge Lizard. Is this a full-on follow-up to Hating Olivia? Do we find out what comes next for Max?

A. Lounge Lizard is the sequel to Hating Olivia; it picks up right where Olivia left off. Max gets sucked back into corporate America as a matter of survival during the Reagan years. Max drinks. Max prowls the bars and clubs of New York and develops a sexual addiction. Max gets his head shrunk. Max’s teeth begin to fall out.

There’s also a prequel to Olivia that I hope sees print one of these days.

Q. How did you hook up with Murder Slim Press?

A. Through the incredibly generous Dan Fante. I owe him an enormous debt that I can never pay back. And he actually hooked me up with the British publisher that was supposed to publish Hating Olivia originally, too. But they hemmed and hawed and dragged their feet for nearly four years until I had the feeling they weren’t going to do it, though they protested that they were. When the Murder Slim opportunity opened up, I had to jump at it. Murder Slim is run by great, great people. I was very lucky to find them.

Q. Which writers do you feel were an influence on your style, and could you talk me through some of your favorites?

A. There are so many that it’s hard. None of us are originals. You try and find your own voice among that clatter of the ones who came before. But here are some: Dostoyevsky. Zola, especially Therese Raquin. Hamsun, for quirkiness of vision. Henry Miller for everything, especially for painting a full portrait of a whole human being, including all the shit. Georges Simenon (the “tough” novels only). He ripped out all the adverbs and adjectives. Bukowski, for his humor. I’m also a great fan of his later work, by the way, when he penetrated to the very core of contemporary middle-class life. Actually, I’m one of those in the minority who thinks that his later poetry is absolutely masterful – when he talks about stuff like having his car fixed and living with a woman for a long time and paying the bills. Because that’s the stuff of everyday life. It’s relevant, more relevant than drinking. If you can make that stuff come alive, you’re really doing something. Celine – he’s one of my great, great favorites for his absolute madness and hatreds and angers. Cain. Jim Thompson. Ross McDonald. Hermann Hesse. Patricia Highsmith. Michel Houellebecq. Pedro Juan Gutierrez. The Fantes. Bill Naughton – I love those Alfie novels.

Actually, some books that had a great influence on the writing of Hating Olivia were Marriage With Papers by Mohammed Mrabet. And Sylvia, by Leonard Michaels. Betty Blue or 37,2 le matin, by Philippe Djian.

In my short fiction, Paul Bowles. Raymond Carver. Highsmith again. IB Singer. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on. I know I’m forgetting lots of them.

Q. Finally, where does your drive to write come from? And what kept you writing and creating during the periods when there was nothing but rejection?

A. Now they are two really good questions. The best questions, really, because they're so goddamned tough to answer. I'm an obsessional type of personality, and I think, simplistically, that it's the answer to the first question. But there's a lot more involved floating around in the murkier regions of the psyche. At the end of the day, it's a mystery.

Regarding the second question, there were many, many times when I begged myself to go in another direction because it was so patently obvious that nothing was happening and that nothing was likely to happen. I tried to get interested in other things -- jobs and the like, but nothing ever took. I tried to stop and do absolutely nothing. The strange thing was that writing and composing and the like was always easy -- and fun. It was the business end, trying to get my stuff out there that was torture. Any sane person would have stopped. Highsmith once said: "Art is an addiction. That's why there are so many bad artists." I think there's a lot of truth in that. I'm crazy -- that's probably the answer. And as someone else said, what else is there to do?

Tony O’Neill © 2006.

Hating Olivia is available direct from Murder Slim Press as well as from Amazon and other online retailers.

In a previous life Tony O’Neill played keyboards for bands and artists as diverse as Kenickie, Marc Almond and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. After moving to Los Angeles his promising career was derailed by heroin addiction, quickie marriages and crack abuse. While kicking methadone he started writing about his experiences on the periphery of the Hollywood Dream and he has been writing ever since. His autobiographical novel DIGGING THE VEIN will be published in Feb 2006 by Contemporary Press, in the US and Canada. Wrecking Ball Press plan to release a UK edition Summer 2006. He lives in New York where he works a variety of odd jobs and writes.

More details can be found at

posted by scarecrow  # 12:20 PM

Stewart Home Interview: Writing about writing...

Stewart Home needs no introduction. A short preamble here wouldn’t do our subterranean behemoth enough justice. His latest novel Tainted Love has been labelled his most mainstream work of fiction yet. Stewart Home? Mainstream? Scarecrow’s editor Lee Rourke just couldn’t resist and had to investigate this straight from the man himself. Enjoy:

Picture courtesy of Andrew Gallix, 3am Magazine.

It is with great pleasure to introduce to you Mr Stewart Home:

Lee Rourke: Do you see Tainted Love as your most mainstream book to date?

Stewart Home: For a number of reasons this might be considered my most mainstream novel. I was interested in the ghosted autobiography as a literary form, and it’s a very mainstream phenomenon since it’s the rich and famous whose books are ghost-written, but I think I twist the genre considerably. For a start I’m quite upfront about the fact that what I’ve produced is a novel. Then, if you start thinking about what I’m doing, writing as if I’m my mother, then it’s coming from somewhere pretty weird. Also, my mother wasn’t really a mainstream person. She came to London from south Wales in 1960 at the age of sixteen and very shortly afterwards was hanging around at least three very distinct scenes. She was a club hostess in Soho working alongside Profumo scandal girl Christine Keeler, she was hanging out in the philosophy department in Gordon Square - where Stuart Hampshire had just taken over from A. J. Ayer as head, and while we might laugh at logical positivists these days, they were taken very seriously in the Anglo-American academic and media worlds back then – and my mother was heavily involved with the Notting Hill beatnik scene, and this entailed some pretty hardcore drug taking as a means of inner exploration. So although some of this stuff became mainstream, my mum was actually a hipster. One editor at a big publisher who really wanted to publish my work thought the book was some kind of joke, Stewart Home writes a commercial novel, and so he wouldn’t touch it. I presume he was worried about being made to look stupid, since he feared I might reveal I’d written a ‘mainstream’ book to hoax him. But this is the book I wanted to write and also the sections about R. D. Laing and the film-script in the middle of it are post-modern explorations of modernist experimentation. This constitutes about twenty thousand words of an eighty-thousand word book. So at most you might say the book appears three-quarters mainstream, but actually even this 75% is pretty whacked out when you start thinking about it. Tainted Love tells my mother’s story in a very thinly fictionalised form, and I dealt with her story in the way I thought was appropriate. I’m very proud of this book, and a lot of people have said they think it’s the best thing I’ve done.

You also have to remember that I don’t just do one style, I switch around and experiment, which confuses people in the trade because they’re used to authors who can’t or won’t write in more than one way. It’s definitely not commercial to change your style as radically as I do between different books. A lot of people who liked my early novels, all written in the third person and in a self-consciously pulp-splatter style, were very pissed off when I dropped the simulations of narratives in my fiction and published Come Before Christ & Murder Love. I’d always been interested in experimental writing, but the fact that Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, had always been a big influence on me, wasn’t picked up by the critics until I did that book. But I was always, even in my earliest fiction, among other things, writing about writing. Perhaps not bizarrely, my most commercially successful novel prior to Tainted Love was 69 Things To Do With A Dead Princess, which on completely goes against the grain of the ‘mainstream’ sensibility. Dead Princess sells because people who grew on fifties and sixties experimental writing (a lot of whom weren’t born until the sixties and even seventies) aren’t at all well served by the publishing industry these days. That book also continues to sell well because it’s been picked up by people teaching English at universities. They teach Burroughs and Beckett and they’re really pleased to be able to set their students a contemporary book with lots of modernist tropes which have been twisted to reflect the way the culture has developed and atrophied. There is still a lot of interest in non-narrative literary explorations, but most publishers just won’t cater for it. Therefore if you can sneak a book into print that doesn’t patronise the reader, doesn’t assume they are thick, then despite the fact that according to the those running publishing houses it’s uncommercial, it is potentially an extremely commercial proposition if it’s well done – and Dead Princess is very well done – because there is absolutely no contemporary competition. But on the basis of the criteria used by the trade, Tainted Love is undoubtedly my most ‘mainstream’ book since Slow Death. Those two books and my first novel Pure Mania are generally judged to have the potential widest appeal by editors. But I don’t think too much about that sort of thing, I just write the books I want to write. Some are easier for the trade to deal with than others. I just do what I think is right for the book. I also like the challenge of trying new things.

LR: Is the sixties as a cultural influence over for us?

SH: It depends on what you mean by the sixties. The whole stoner culture which came out of the sixties, and which my mother was very much a part of, permeates everything these days, not just records but TV and cinema. But a lot of the more interesting literary and cinematic experimentation has been dumped. Most people’s idea of non-linear these days is more MTV than Last Year At Marienbad or Ann Quin. But people are increasingly bored with the blanding out of the culture that’s been going on for some time, there will be a resurgence, reinvention, redeployment and some completely unexpected new developments of all the best things about sixties modernism. It’s a matter of using elements of sixties culture to do something new, not simply replicating them. And it’s not really just the sixties we’re talking about. It’s about recognising we all have a stake in modernity, and moving on and off from that. So what really interests me is modernism as a whole, not just in its sixties guise, and in a lot of ways I’m most interesting in taking that up from where people like Rudy Ray More left off, fucking with the conventions and doing so with both attitude and humour. What we need to get away from is the obsession with cultural objects, so that we can put the focus back on the social relations within specific communities and between groups of people from which cultural forms emerge. The cultural industry will have to take this onboard eventually, because in its obsession with gaining the largest possible audience for a small number of cultural objects, it is ultimately on a hiding to nowhere. A book or whatever that is put together in the hope that it will appeal to everyone, ultimately appeals to no one. It misses the mark by aiming too wide. That’s what the current blanding out is all about, it entails removing all the elements that appeal to specific readers because these might be found difficult or offensive by someone else. People end up having best-sellers foisted on them rather than books they’d actually enjoy reading. It’s the mental equivalent of junk food. People don’t develop if they don’t read things that challenge them, that they disagree with, that they find disagreeable. You haven’t grown up until you’ve understood the value of reading a bad book, and the trade sells itself on enjoyment, on not offending. I read shitloads of books I dislike, and watch shitloads of films I think are shit, because I’m continuously educating myself. If you read something you disagree with, it can force you to develop and sharpen your positions, if you only read writers whose opinions you agree with then you’re not going anywhere.

LR: Do you see the writing/publishing of the memoir as a worthwhile literary form?

SH: I wrote Tainted Love precisely because I don’t find most memoirs worthwhile. They’re formulaic, particularly the celebrity memoir or autobiography. I wanted to create the double of the memoir, something with a twist and that recorded a genuinely interesting life. Celebrities are never interesting, they’ve become pure image with all their humanity removed from them, celebrities are just an abstraction of what it is to be human and their pseudo-lives aren’t of interest to me at all. I’m more interested in people who can’t afford to do rehab in The Priory, but unfortunately it’s the rich and famous who most usually get their memoirs published. Not all memoirs are bad, and since we’re dealing with the sixties I might as well mention some examples which address that era. I thought Brian Barritt’s autobiography The Road Of Excess was very interesting as far as it went. The problem with the book is that because Barritt wants to be perceived as a psychedelic warrior, he doesn’t really detail his involvement in a whole range of drug dealing, and knowing about this makes a bit more sense of his life. Barritt only really touches on stuff like pot and LSD which are acceptable to weekend hippies, although he does at least mention his smack use. He’s also very funny on Alex Trocchi, so the book is well worth reading despite a few reservations. I also liked parts of Hammond Guthrie’s AsEverWas: Memoirs of a Beat Survivor. He’s very good on the early psychedelic scene in California, some great stuff about the scene there, I’m not so interested in his juvenile pranks or the breakdown of his marriage, but he writes well.

LR: As most of your fiction is an anti-narrative, is Tainted Love an anti-memoir?

SH: It’s definitely an anti-memoir, and it’s more truthful than most memoirs because it presents itself as an anti-novel, as fiction. Probably more of the book is literally true than most people would imagine, but it wasn’t possible to tell the whole story because the guilty must be protected, in part because of the ridiculously stringent libel laws in the UK. One day, perhaps, the whole story can come out. But that said, my novel is a far better approximation of ‘truth’ than any ghost-written ‘autobiography’ that presents itself as ‘non-fiction’.

LR: Patti Smith is ostensibly an influence. Discuss.

SH: I was telling someone the other day that I acquired Patti Smith’s first album Horses when I was fourteen, and the woman I was talking to said that was very early, and I replied that the album came out in 1975, the year before, so it wasn’t that early. I always thought Patti Smith was hilarious, like all her shit about. It was so pretentious, in the literal meaning of the term, that I just loved it. Patti Smith was speaking in tongues, and she didn’t seem to know what the fuck she was singing about. But the spirit was great. I loved "Gloria" and "Land" on that first album. The sound was perfect, but she sure as hell wasn’t hip, like she could have gone for Villon, or someone, but no Patti opts for absolutely the most obvious romantic poetic cliché in the form of Rimbaud. If she’d been less pretentious, if she’d actually known what the fuck she was talking about, she wouldn’t have been as good. I loved "Piss Factory" and her version of "Hey Joe", but when I was a teenager back in the late seventies for me the best thing she’d done was the live version of The Who’s My Generation. I’d just crack up every time I heard her scream ‘John Cale bass guitar solo’ and you’d get about two notes. At that time I also got hold of the Nuggets double compilation album put together by her guitarist Lenny Kaye, and that was a revelation, all those groovy garage punk classics from the sixties by The Electric Prunes and The Seeds, I loved that stuff when I was teenage. As soon as The Pebbles albums started coming out, I got those too, from Pebbles 1 onwards. The sixties seemed so long ago to me then, like it was the stone-age, although those garage punk recordings were only a decade old. Back then, those recordings felt to me to be a lot older than stuff that came out in the late-seventies sounds to my ears now. Even the sixties sounds like yesterday now, whereas when I was fourteen or fifteen I thought stuff from 1966 sounded positively antediluvian.

LR: Are there any writers you admire who you feel do not get the attention they deserve?

SH: There are lots, and among contemporary writers I think Lynne Tillman stands out in particular as someone who really ought to be much more widely read than she is at present. Her new novel American Genius is coming out on Soft Skull, I’m really looking forward to reading that. My favourite Tillman book is Cast In Doubt, which is about a gay writer called Horace and his obsession with a girl whose disappeared called Helen. On a meta-level Horace represents classicism or modernism, and Helen stands for romanticism or post-modernism. So the book is all about Horace’s quest for Helen and his inability to find her, and the complete meaninglessness of her diary to him when he acquires that. But Lynne has done a lot of really good books. Anything by her is worth reading, fiction or non-fiction. To take just one more writer, an older one this time, I really like Clarence Cooper Junior, who Canongate republished in their Payback series of classic black writing about ten years ago, but I think he’s out of print in the UK. No doubt you can pick him up used or on import. A lot of people think Cooper’s last novel The Farm is his best. It’s about being forced to clean up from heroin addiction as a con, and his sexual and other obsessions that accompany this, the minutiae and inhumanity of prison life etc. It’s fairly autobiographical but Cooper presents it as a novel. The Farm is a stunning piece of writing, but I also really like his earlier books too.

LR: What next? Are there any more novels on the way?

SH: In terms of writing, I have a novel I wrote before Tainted Love that still isn’t published called "Memphis Underground". There was an independent publisher interested in that, but it contains four basic strands and the editor I was dealt with only liked three of them, so he wanted me to remove the final strand and replace it with something else. I didn’t want to do that, so this novel will come out when I find a publisher who likes all of what I’ve done with it. The first half "Memphis Underground" uses that classic sci-fi device of cutting two narratives together which turn out to be the same person’s life six months apart, so in the second of the cut narratives he’s taken on another identity. It’s about all sorts of things but other than using this sci-fi trope, it isn’t science fiction. I’ve got another novel I’ve done called "Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane", which is about a drug-addled college lecturer who turns into a serial killer. I want to do some revisions on that, but it’s written in draft form. I’ve also done a non-fiction biography of my mother, but I’m not ready to publish that yet because of potential legal problems. So that will have to sit in a draw until certain people have died, it could come out in two years time, or it might have to wait twenty-years before there’s any chance of it being published. Sometime within the next year I’m also planning to start work on a new novel called "Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie", it will be set in the contemporary art world. However, I’m also learning ventriloquism. I just got a £8800 grant from the Live Art Development Agency, which enables me to take time out to learn some new skills. I’m exited about the prospect of presenting readings from my fiction wrapped into a ventriloquist act. That’s what’s really keeping me busy right now. I love ventriloquist dummies, they’re such an archetypal symbol of modernism…

LR: Stewart, welcome to scarecrow, and thanks for your time…

For further information please visit The Stewart Home Society.

posted by scarecrow  # 10:35 AM


February 2005   June 2005   August 2005   February 2006   March 2006   June 2006   March 2007   September 2007  

scarecrow home...

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?