This week sees our publication of Erotic Nightmares, your new collection of stories. What can you tell us about it in a few sentences? You can have four or five sentences if you want.
Erotic Nightmares consists of seven stories, all of which loosely involve a character’s desires leading them down a dark alley. There is a children’s TV presenter who becomes too much of a favourite with kids’ mums, a student union lothario, and a ghost hunter with a sexual secret. Also, Paul Young manifests as a demon and terrorizes a family. The stories are generally humorous with a fair amount of quick-fire dialogue, but also with some more serious moments occurring in the shorter ones.
I don’t know how many sentences that was. I’m not going to count them. Your rules mean nothing to me.
Do you have a preference for writing short fiction now, or is that just how things have panned out?
Part of it is to do with me being a parent now, which I wasn’t when I wrote my novels, and so my writing time has become more fragmented. It’s easier to carry around a short story in your head until you get time to get it down than it is a novel.
But also, it’s a reaction to the sheer amount of information we absorb these days online and the question of how much detail there really needs to be in a story because of that. A contemporary reader has so much stored in their brain already they can probably fill in a lot themselves from the merest of hints. A good Twitter joke, for example, works by providing the barest skeleton of an absurd situation, and leaving the reader to construct a world in which something like that could occur around it.
To my mind, fast-paced short stories are the perfect literature for the time-stretched twenty-first century digital nomad. Unfortunately, the average time-stretched twenty-first century digital nomad mostly doesn’t agree and still prefers long novels full of description, if they’re reading fiction at all, perhaps precisely because they’re immersive and the antithesis of everything else going on in their lives.
I’ll probably get expansive again eventually, when the time is right.
You seem to like the idea of making readers uncomfortable, is that fair? If so, why?
The reader feeling uncomfortable is a by-product, not my main intention. It’s my belief that one of the things fiction does is point the reader towards something that is there in reality, but may be not immediately apparent. So, I write about the suppressed sexual nature of kids’ TV presenters, or the sordid underside of a picturesque place like Cambridge. And if you dig up things people haven’t seen before, or don’t want to see, that can make them feel ill-at-ease.
I want you to cast your mind back a decade or so to publication of your debut novel, Hound Dog. It caused quite a stir, as I recall, do you have a favourite review of it or reaction to it?
There was a Mumsnet thread about a rather conservative book group in Australia who chose it as their book of the month without anyone thinking to read it first. Needless to say, they were quite upset.
A wank-addicted Elvis impersonator isn't the obvious hero for a novel. Are you an Elvis fan? Did you listen to lots of his stuff when writing the book? (Rather than asking you about wanking).
I’d say he was an anti-hero, and if I were writing it today, I’d go for something even less obvious, like a Sonny Bono impersonator who has a ventriloquist’s dummy as his Cher. I like Elvis, and he obviously achieved brilliance at various points in his career. I don’t listen to him a great deal, though. I probably think more often about Matthew Corbett from The Sooty Show than I do Elvis. This is unconnected to wanking, by the way.
Your follow-up, Flying Saucer Rock & Roll, was far less violent, less dark, and I think it really captured the essence of what it is like to be a teenage boy in a dodgy rock band. Was that book in any way autobiographical? Are there unheard demo tapes in your loft?
I’m surprised you asked me that, as I thought it was common knowledge I replaced Phil Collins in Genesis for the 1997 Calling All Stations album and resulting tour. True, critics weren’t kind, and I suppose capturing the magic of the peak-Collins or even Gabriel years was an impossible feat. Still, I enjoyed working with Tony and Mike, and people forget that the album sold very well in Europe, while the single ‘Congo’ got to no. 30 in the UK and this was when singles sales really meant something. When Mike and Tony got back with Phil for the Turn It On Again tour in 2007, I was disappointed but not surprised that none of the songs from my era featured in the set. I think the fans would have been respectful of a little nod in my direction. In truth, it felt like I was being written out of the band’s history a bit. Still, no regrets.
Is there a book written by someone else that you really wish you had written?
Probably something like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers because no one could seriously argue it’s not truly fine writing. Well, they could, but they’d have to be some sort of prick.
2017 has turned out, perhaps accidentally, to be a prolific year for you. Hound Dog and Flying Saucer Rock & Roll have been reissued, Erotic Nightmares debuts as an ebook, and you have a handsome big arty hardback out too. Tell us about London in the Company of Painters.
It’s a book of artworks from the sixteenth century to the present depicting various locations in London. I was commissioned to do it by the publisher Laurence King, and I’m guessing they wanted someone a bit outside the artworld mainstream who would put an unusual twist on it, which I tried to do by trawling through image libraries looking for really obscure stuff you wouldn’t normally see to mix up with the bigger names like Turner, Monet and so on. I think one of the works I selected is currently in a university cupboard or something.
Also, I sequenced the works so it’s as if you’re moving through a particular part of London, so you start off in Kensington Gardens and wander over into Hyde Park, for instance. But time isn’t linear, so a painting of skaters on the Serpentine from the sixties will be followed by another of the same subject, but from the eighteenth century. It’s the idea of viewing the past as being hidden inside the present, and you can peel back the layers to any point, rather than simply as a chronological sequence of changes.
You have written about art a great deal when it comes to non-fiction but it doesn't creep into your fiction all that much, would that be fair to say? Perhaps in a couple of short stories? Why do you think there hasn't been as much of an overlap?
Art features in a few stories in my collection The Shuffle, but I think I said everything I wanted to say about it in fiction there. There is more of an overlap though. Hound Dog was influenced by the artist Paul McCarthy, who makes videos where people with cartoon heads are excreting everywhere in a very Freudian manner. The Shuffle is very much informed by post-modern theory such as Baudrillard, which was still hanging about art schools when I was studying in the late nineties.
Besides that, contemporary artists are obviously not that bothered if most people don’t like what they do, and I get in that mindset on occasion. The difference is, an artist can potentially sell a work for several grand to the one person who gets it, whereas the one person who gets what I’m doing only needs to spend a few quid.
Are you still blogging at The Lost Book Library? It is clearly a subject close to our hearts so tell us more about it.
The Lost Book Library arose because I had a job where I came into contact with an extraordinary number of books, not long before they were carted off to be recycled. I figured I owed it to the more interesting-looking ones to give them one last chance to do their thing before being turned to mush. I don’t know if I uncovered any lost masterpieces, but there were certainly many curate’s eggs. There was one book which had the most useless main storyline, but also a subplot about a cat-based psychotherapy cult that was absolutely mind-bending. I don’t have that job anymore, so the supply of books has slowed to a trickle, but there is more on the way. I’m reading a book now by a well-regarded author that has been out of print since 1965. My copy has been partially eaten by mice.
And finally, is there a particular lost book you'd like to recommend to us?
Thumb Tripping by Don Mitchell. It’s a novel about hitchhiking hippies from the early seventies. Although very much a period piece, when you get to the end of it, it does feel as if it’s succeeded on its own terms and is a solid, coherent work. Most Lost Book Library books collapse at the end because the author rushed it so they could get the second half of their advance. This one doesn’t.