Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Interview: Quentin S. Crisp

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Quentin S. Crisp is the author of Shrike (PS Publishing). His other books include The Nightmare Exhibition (BJM Press), Morbid Tales (Tartarus Press), and Rule Dementia! (Rainfall Books).

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, under what category would you describe your writing? Fantasy? Horror? Simply fiction? Or do we resort to your own label, "demented fiction?"

Thank you.

If possible, I’d prefer not to use categories at all. I entered publishing through horror, but I’d written all kinds of things before my first stories were published. This looks like being a long struggle for me, but I’d prefer not to have a prefix in front of ‘writer’, unless that prefix is simply ‘fiction’, as you say. It’s not even that I dislike the genres you mention, or others with which I might be associated. I just didn’t realise until I started to have work published how much such genres would militate against me and how much they generally encourage conservatism in reading. I think the labels are fine as academic reference points, that kind of thing, but too many publishers only want writers to reproduce what’s gone before, and too many writers are willing to collude with them in this.

Having said that, I do like playing around with disposable categories such as ‘demented fiction’, which also, hopefully, highlight how unimaginative most categories are. For instance, a creative/fiction-writing blog I do with Justin Isis inhabits the made-up genre of ‘dadaoism’. Justin has come up with some other interesting ones, too, like ‘retarded science fiction’. But an artist should contain such categories, rather than be contained by them.

When did your interest in Japanese literature start?

This is a cliché now, but I got into Japanese literature through anime and manga. Akira was what initially did it for me. That film is responsible for a great deal in Britain. The British anime/manga revolution started there. Strange to think about that now. Anyway, someone who saw me reading some Takahashi Rumiko comics lent me some Japanese books, including The Sea of Fertility by Mishima. That’s a book that is easily in my top three of the best books ever written. That, and Ian Buruma’s A Japanese Mirror, really ushered me into the world of J-lit.

Who are the Japanese writers or Japanese fiction that interest you?

Mainly, but not exclusively, the usual Meiji-to-Showa suspects. Mishima Yukio, Dazai Osamu, Nagai Kafu, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro. I say the ‘usual suspects’, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another Nagai Kafu enthusiast in my life. I don’t know why this is. I feel like he’s the most under-rated writer in the universe. Apart from anything else, he was a god-like prose stylist. His appeal is very layered and sophisticated, too. Tanizaki pretty much worshipped Kafu, and wrote a great essay about him. The eminent American Japanologist, Seidensticker, just didn’t seem to get Kafu at all, despite translating his work and writing a sniffy biography of him, but I feel like Kafu’s a more varied and interesting writer than the better-known Tanizaki. He’s probably not as accessible, because he’s odder, drier in style, and, despite a very strong interest in sex, far less immediately erotic.

I tend to repeat the same names, but I do – slowly because of other demands in life – continue to deepen my acquaintance with J-lit, and there are writers that I like that I don’t name-check so much. You’ll want me to name someone new now, that I’ve never named before. Ueda Akinari (pre-Meiji) intrigues me. I’ve mainly read him in translation so far – only one or two stories in the original. Already, though, I can see that the original texts are vastly more atmospheric than the translations.

Let's talk about translation. For me translators don't get enough praise because it is through their filter so to speak that we get to read about non-English fiction. Do you have a favorite translator? Do you have any commentary on translated Japanese fiction?

I agree that translators are not sufficiently appreciated. Those who demand translation seem to have not a single clue of the difficulties involved and the care necessary. Most people are even ignorant of the golden rule that you must only ever translate into your mother tongue. I don’t really have favourite translators, though. I think this is partly because, in the area on which I’m qualified to comment – Japanese literature – I do, sadly, think that there is a great deal of sub-par translation. This is partly due to the difficulties of the language, and I think that classical Japanese is especially difficult to render in attractive English, but I think it’s also partly because Japanology is yet young in the West and any Westerner who can read a few Kanji seems to think they can ‘have a go’. I can name a few translators of Japanese fiction, but I don’t have that much personal regard for their work, apart from general gratitude that they have helped me discover Japanese literature in the first place. Donald Keene is generally pretty good, though. Seidensticker has a decent prose style, but seems to hold the original text too often in contempt. Robert Lyons Danly made a valiant attempt to translate a lot of Higuchi Ichiyo. I’ve compared texts closely and he made mistakes, but, actually, I feel well-disposed towards his translations. Maybe, actually, I’ll go for Lane Dunlop as my favourite, though it’s been a while – I’m very fond of Lane Dunlop’s translations of Nagai Kafu.

In an interview, you mention your dislike for the "I’ve read Murakami Haruki therefore I know everything about Japan’ mentality." Could you elaborate more on that?

I just think Murakami Haruki is hugely overexposed. It’s me being elitist, really. He has a good publicity machine going, but the people I’ve spoken to who have read his work don’t often seem to have any desire to dig deeper into Japanese literature. They don’t seem to associate Murakami with a long tradition of Japanese literature, and Murakami himself doesn’t seem to wish to belong to any such tradition. This is fine, I suppose, but I just think that Murakami is linked to a set of interests that is not really much to do with Japanese culture. And yet, people seem to lazily suppose it is. Murakami has become a sort of token Japanese writer in the West, but he’s not even a representative token. He’s a token that obscures what’s really interesting in Japanese culture.

What aspects of Japanese literature have you appropriated or you think have influenced your writing?

A concern with beauty. That might sound obvious or basic, but when I compare Japanese literature with English literature, the difference is stark. English literature is lumpy and brutish in comparison. You’d think that those concerned with literature would naturally have a strong sense of beauty, but English literature, on the whole, is about as beautiful as bangers and mash. (I can just hear English readers now saying, “But bangers and mash is beautiful!”)

I’m not sure of any other definite things I’ve picked up. It’s largely aesthetics, I suppose, things like yuugen, which might be called a sense of mystery, or of the unspoken. However, it’s also partly things like structure. I like the zuihitsu form of writing, that can veer between autobiography and essay, and even stray into story. I’m also less concerned with the Western sense of drama – the need to build to a dramatic climax. I understand its value, but these days the extreme fixation on this model of fiction that still exists in the West irritates and bores me. Of course, I do pick up a lot of very Japanese-specific stuff in terms of settings, folklore and so on. And I consider Mishima Yukio and Nagai Kafu, to name but two, to be among my strongest influences.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

There wasn’t a particular moment, or not one that I remember, because I’ve really written from almost as far back as I can remember, from my pre-school days. I honestly feel like if there’s such a thing as a born writer, then I am it.

How did you go about becoming a published author?

Very haphazardly. For years I was completely disorganised, and things likes publishers just seemed unthinkably inaccessible. However, I must thank Garry Kilworth here. He was one of the tutors on a writing course I attended. At the end, he told me not to give up, and named a few magazines I should read and send things to. These included The Third Alternative. I sent something to TTA, and it was rejected, but I noticed there were other publications advertised in TTA’s pages, and that these were open to submissions. The first acceptances I had were from Paul Bradshaw, who edited Dream Zone magazine, and published ‘The Psychopomps’ in his Haunted Dreams series of novellas, and Len Maynard and Mick Sims, who published Enigmatic Tales, for which ‘The Legacy’ was accepted. I’m afraid I’ve never had much of a game-plan, though. I’ve been helped along the way greatly by John B. Ford, Mark Samuels and others.

I’m gradually becoming more determined in some ways, and maybe more resigned in others. I feel that writing is my vocation, and I want it to be my living, exclusively, without me having to lean on other means.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced in getting published?

Knowing where to send anything. Honestly, I’m the most pathetically lacking-in-enterprise person you could hope not to meet. I had no idea at all what to do with my stories until Garry Kilworth spelt it out for me. I think, if you want to get published, you basically have to hang out with other writers and pick up tips and so on. They call it ‘networking’, don’t they?

What kind of research did you have to do for your stories, specifically Shrike? What were your visits to Japan like?

For Shrike very little research was necessary. I’ve lived in Japan twice, and it wasn’t difficult for me to reproduce a Japanese setting. I don’t especially like research. It’s a chore. I do it, though, when I have to. I think I’d like research more if I actually made more money at writing. If I could travel to Estonia and spend a week there researching, or get a job as a gravedigger for a few months just for research, and so on, that would be great, but when you’re still just surviving financially from day to day, well, then research is just a burden. I had some good advice on this front, though. Always do your research at the end of the first draft, then you know exactly what you need to research, and don’t have to waste your time with a lot of general reading etc. But the kind of research I do can come in almost any form. It can be, for instance, trying to sit in the posture described for a certain character, to see if people actually sit comfortably like that.

My visits to Japan were, in retrospect, very nourishing for me as a writer, but they did not feel like that at the time, at all. People kept saying to me, “Surely, you can write about your experiences in Japan?” And I’d think, “What experiences in Japan?” I never had any experiences. Life has never been in love with me, I’m afraid. I was very lonely and depressed in Japan. Maybe it was to me something like what Coventry was to Larkin.

Anyway, settings, atmospheres, small details, have seeped into my being from my sojourns in Japan, and I have made use of them.

On the topic of Shrike, how did PS Publishing end up publishing your novella?

I sent it to them. They liked it. I was very surprised. I can’t remember now if PS look at your stuff without any kind of introduction (that is, whether they read unsolicited manuscripts), but, in any case, I had an introduction. And, of course, you must always send an e-mail or letter first asking if the publisher would be interested in reading your work.

What was the inspiration for the book?

Now, that’s a loaded question. It was an attempt at therapy. I don’t generally think of my work in that way – I mean, I think there is a therapeutic aspect to writing, but that’s not why I think I do it (or is it? Am I wrong?) – but in this case, I was very conscious of the work being therapeutic. I had pains in my body that I knew to be psychosomatic, and I tried to ‘write out’ what these pains were telling me.

As far as format is concerned, why the focus on short stories and novellas? Have you tried to write any novels?

The focus is more that of publishers than my own, at least so far. It’s true that I ‘started’ with short stories. But this is also not true, since I’ve been writing, as I said, from my pre-school years, and never concerned myself with questions of form, just letting things sprawl. When I realised I needed to discipline my style, I concentrated on doing this within the short story form, because short stories would be easier to finish and to perfect techniques within and so on. The publishers I know seem to prefer short stories and novellas to novels, but by now I’ve actually written quite a few novels. Surely it’s only a matter of time till they’re published. Surely? Or maybe I’ll have to die first. Anyway, in terms of novels, please look forward to the following, which may appear someday: “Remember You’re a One-Ball!”, Susuki, The Lovers, Domesday Afternoon and others.

In this age of the Internet, how do you think the publishing industry has changed, especially when it comes to author intrusion?

I’m not the person best qualified to answer this, as I only exist on the very fringes of the publishing industry. Submissions are more often made by e-mail now than in hard copy. That’s one thing. Of course, there’s a rise in print-on-demand publishing. Also, physical bookshops, that exist in physical locations, open to the public, outside the Internet, are having a hard time of it.

In some ways I feel I was born too late, as I seem to be making some headway in writing just when all the old rewards for such things are disappearing. Perhaps I’m mistaken there, though. Publishing will have to change, because of the Internet, print-on-demand and so on. I only hope that it will change in a positive way, that nurtures literature. There’s a phrase ‘the publisher drinks wine from the author’s skull’. I think it comes from Ambrose Bierce, or he paraphrased it from something else – something like that. Too many publishers have really screwed writers over (and betrayed the cause of literature, which they should be serving) for many, many years now. No one believes this until they try getting work published seriously themselves. I’m not going to go into details, because, apart from anything else, there are too many. I’d like to see the removal of monopoly from such publishers make a liberating difference. I’m rather afraid it might only make a destructive difference, as with the Cultural Revolution in China. There are independent publishers who, whatever their shortcomings, are providing an enormous service to literature by maintaining standards outside of the mercenary mainstream. I wouldn’t like to see these swept away. It seems like it’s always the ones who least deserve it who manage to sit out each crisis safely in their bunkers. I pray that will not be so this time.

Can I ask who Quentin S. Crisp is when he's not writing?

The Black Widow, dominatrix extraordinaire.

Other than that, I more or less cease to exist when I’m not writing. I’m afraid I have to confess that my life is void of interest. The only interesting part of my existence is my imagination. I suppose people come into existence through relationships with others, but though you could say I have relationships with other humans, it’s never been to the extent that I feel I actually exist.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

First of all, give up. If you really can’t give up, then keep writing. That is, don’t worry about the fate of the stories you’ve sent out to publishers and so on. Follow them up, of course, but don’t spend your energy in worrying. If you’re rejected or you get a bad review, don’t worry. Keep writing. You’re always a beginner. There’s this tremendous need to know that you’ve accomplished something, that you’re a real writer. I don’t know if that moment ever comes, although good moments may come and go. The real writers are, in the end, those who start again and again and keep writing.

Anything else you want to plug?

Chomu, the blogzine that Justin Isis and I do together. Please read it. Also, I have a book out with Ex Occidente, a publisher based in Bucharest. It’s a collection of short to longish pieces called All God’s Angels, Beware! At the time of speaking, it is unreleased, but it promises to be a lovely volume, and I think it will be my best collection so far (it’s the fourth).

I’d also like to plug an album I’m currently working on with the band Kodagain. Basically, I’m writing lyrics for them. The album will be called Letters From Quentin. And please check out Kodagain’s music. A good place to start might be their tributes to Maila Nurmi and Carson McCullers that are up on Youtube (Vampira and Carson McCullers being the titles).

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