I’m excited to publish this interview with Dan Holloway, author, philosopher and Alliance of Independent Authors member. In fact, I’m excited for three reasons.
First of all, as a relatively new ALLi member, I couldn’t have anticipated a warmer welcome than the one I received from Dan and several other members. Dan has been an advocate over the past few days of a survey I launched profiling writers of literary fiction on their authorial works and the great themes that pervade their stories. To repeat, I’m a new member. I have done nothing to earn capital or goodwill from anyone in the ALLi community. And yet…and yet, he is helping out.
Secondly, this guy is brilliant when it comes to sharing his thoughts on literary writing, self-publishing and the nature of meaning. To read his insights means having your mind bent into a pretzel, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. (At least I hope he takes it that way.) He makes me REALLY miss graduate school. He makes one remember the many ways life attempts to hammer one into an assembly-line approach to living, and the many ways that approach truly sucks.
Finally, having this chance to publish an interview with Dan means my survey is now underway. I am honored to have him as my first guest. My goal in this survey–and an ambitious goal it is–is to have responses from 75 author respondents. Details can be found here. I would love to interview each contributing author for my blog, much as I am interviewing Dan now.
And once all 75 survey responses are in, I expect to put together a fairly comprehensive–well, let me rephrase that–I expect to put together an ENTIRELY comprehensive roundup post of authors speaking about their works of literary fiction and what they feel literary fiction is.
Is there a goal beyond that? I haven’t gotten that far yet…but it remains to be seen.
But enough for now. It’s time to listen to the impressively intelligent Mr. Dan Holloway.
1. What novel (or piece of writing) did you author that inspired you to fill out my survey? Include a link so readers can check it out.
Evie and Guy is a free download on my website at the moment – https://danholloway.wordpress.com/work-in-progress/evie-and-guy-2/. I am working on a completely remastered edition that is easier to read. It will be out on May 31st – if you want to wait till after then to post this, I’ll send you the new link.
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
Oh, both. There are ideas that have obsessed me all my life – this book is about meaning, communication, subjectivity, what language can and can’t do, what we can ever know of other people; another topic that obsesses me is violence and pain and the way nothing can cut through the numbness of life except the most extreme pain; and the third one is identity and the absurdity of taking the myriad fragments of sense data we experience every day and trying to piece them together into something that equates to “me” or more absurd still ”my place in the world.”
I studied philosophy for 10 years, then I taught it and those questions have been there all that time. They are the soup of amino acids in which stories start to cook. But what makes them coalesce, the ruptures in the initial symmetry to borrow cosmology rather than biology, that’s always an image. I see someone, then I see their setting, then I follow them, and if they’re interesting I start writing about them – but like a Kundera prologue these characters are always embodiments of the same ideas.
In the case of Evie and Guy the image was a woman, and as I panned out I could see that she was in a studio, smoking, and she was part Andy Warhol and part Sylvia Plath and she was completely detached and at first it looked like her hands were covered in blood but as I followed her I realised it wasn’t blood but red paint mixed with the secretions from her orgasm.
3. Keeping with one survey question, you identified a great theme for your literary work. Did that theme exist at the beginning of the writing, or did it emerge only through the telling of your story?
No, it was absolutely always front and centre. I spent four years studying the (im)possibility of subjectivity back in the 90s and that has never left me. What does it mean to communicate? Why are there so many respected sciences and the whole history of culture predicated upon this complete myth that we can possibly understand anything another human being is thinking? Why is no one questioning this in a more than superficial way? I mean, philosophers talk freely about the utter absence of free will in the world and yet when they go home they’ll tell their kids off for not working or praise them for doing well in the game – why are we so full of contradictions?
I have always wanted to try and find an answer to that – while acknowledging that it is not really “me” and there is no such thing as “trying”. If that’s the kind of thing that’s been going through your head for 20 years it’s no wonder you end up writing a book that’s got no words in is it!
4. Did your perspective on this theme change as you wrote the story? Did you find yourself less in control of your narrative than you expected? Or did you find that you knew all along, based on your convictions, how the story would emerge? Were you, in other words, the “alpha” in the emerging narrative?
See above for the disclaimers on “control”. The whole authorial control thing is what I was trying to deconstruct, because that seemed like the best way of trying to epitomise the struggle for control and subjectivity in day to day life. So many authors play this fictive game with their readers, presenting themselves as realists, trying to get the reader to “believe” and it’s such nonsense. Every single thing you write is the result of an editorial choice. Why did Proust describe the scent of madeleines? Why not list every breakfast all his characters ever head? Because what mattered is what he didn’t say.
Because what the madeleines are about is what they are not – because HE wants to say “all of these other breakfasts do not matter”. What kind of rubbish is that? Who is Proust to tell readers what parts of his characters matter? How dare he! I wanted to get that out of the way up front – I wanted to say, “OK, this is me. I am going to list this one thing, and I am going to list it completely. Yes, that makes me a controlling asshole but that’s the only choice I am going to make, now forget about me and let these characters speak.”
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
Literary fiction is what other people write while you’re trying to define literary fiction!
I have no idea. I know what it’s not. It’s nothing to do with beautiful language, or character over plot or care and attention over research and sentence craft. It’s not what you will find anywhere on “best indie books” sites under the literary fiction heading. The world is populated by even-toned but beautifully constructed drivel that’s lauded as brilliant, and I’m sorry to say the self-publishing world is the worst culprit. Self-publishing is home to some truly stellar genre fiction, but – and this wasn’t the case a few years ago – most self-published literary fiction just doesn’t have anything to say. A few books do. A very few – and none of them is on any “best of” list you’ll find.
The fact is that there are so many exciting small presses kicking ass that self-publishing just isn’t the exciting place for literary authors to be. It was, and it can be again, but we really need to get together and show what exciting, different things self-publishing can make possible. We need to stop trying to show that we can do what publishing already does – yes, the control of self-publishing is great in and of itself, but we can do so much more than we’re doing if we think not about the commercial freedom of self-publishing but the creative freedom.
Most of the time I want to shake the literary self-publishing scene and say “we can do so much better! You wonder why we’re not exciting readers? Really? Self-published literary fiction should be the place readers *have* to be because if you’re not there you’re not part of the conversation – like early Sundance, like Freeze. And it’s not. And people saying it is are the problem because they’re selling readers down the river.
Ha!! I guess I eventually winkled out an answer. Literary fiction is two things. It has something to say. And it is utterly fearless – especially fearless of failure.
6. Within the scope of that definition, how did you hope to impress the reader? Did you hope to evoke emotion with a story about some element of life the reader would connect with? Or was your mission to challenge and thereby expand a reader’s perspective on a subject most others would feel is already “known”?
See that’s where the theorizing breaks down. I think what I really want for readers is for them to feel they are not alone. That’s what books and films did for me the times I was closest to suicide. I spent a lot of my time thinking I was the only person who thought the things I did. I thought I was a freak, a monster. Films like Three Colours: Blue and American Mary, books like Betty Blue, Damage, The Piano Teacher, basically artists who speak the unspeakable, they let you know you are not alone.
I feel that as a writer I have a duty to do just that, to speak the unspeakable – the disgusting, the vile, the most hideous thoughts choked down in the darkest places. I want to be a hand held out in the night to anyone who needs it. Or maybe we really are just monsters and we should just shut up after all. I don’t know.
7. Do you consider yourself a writer of literary fiction? Or a writer of other genre fiction that carries literary elements? Please provide an explanation for your answer.
Probably it’s a spectrum and it depends upon the books. I don’t know but I feel an overwhelming desire to talk about Margaret Atwood and China Mieville, because that’s probably the only real answer to that question, “mumble, mumble, I don’t know, China Mieville or something.”
8. How would you discuss your book in context of its genre? If you consider it literary, why? If your book falls more closely within another genre, what elements would you say make it literary?
A lot of people who write literary fiction would say I write experimental or avant garde fiction because I think they don’t want to be associated with the kind of thing I write. Sometimes I say I write experimental fiction because it’s easier for people to place – they think alienating, black and white cinema, basement theatres, and probably a bit shit. And probably all of that’s right! But I think it’s also good not to be ashamed of saying I write literary fiction.
9. Is the literary community a closed community? Or are there inroads for writers of literary fiction to reach readers other than those reading literary fiction now?
Oh no, it’s as open as any other cultural community. I think a lot of the most exciting communities – be they punk zinesters, Torture Garden, macabre crocheting, larpers, or literary fiction lovers – superficially look really closed because they have all these unspoken rules, because there is a whole fabric of common understanding that never gets articulated, but actually there are so many points of entry – take the kind of transgressive avant garde literary fiction I love, embodied by writers like Elfriede Jelinek, Gabrielle Wittkop, Banana Yoshimoto, Polly Trope, you could be interested in body modification, horror, existential philosophy, nihilism, suicide, addiction, punk music, Mahler, the art of the Chapman Twins or Hieronymous Bosch – any one of those would be an easy in to the community, and if you can’t find an in like that you probably wouldn’t enjoy being there.
Taking the flip side, as writers we should be looking at what our readers’ “in”s are and going there. I work with musicians and artists, host gigs in galleries and tattoo parlours. I think there’s a tendency for writers to talk to writers, and when they’re not talking to writers they’re preaching to the choir – if you only go to literary festivals you won’t convert anyone to reading and you’ll become part of the zero sum game. Whatever you think of the art YBA succeeded in getting people who had never been to a gallery talking about art. That’s what we should be working on. It’s a variation on that old trope about being so good they can’t ignore you. I genuinely think we as writers have lost sight of that.
And literary fiction writers, in particular, have done it because we’re used to apologising for even being here, trying to justify ourselves by talking about our professional covers and thorough editing. We should be behaving more like rock stars. We should be telling the world we’re what it’s been waiting for. We should be saying “you’re here or you’re nowhere.” John Cooper Clarke said of performance poetry, if you’re going to get up on stage in front of hundreds of people and recite poetry you have to think you’re the bollocks.
We don’t think we’re the bollocks. We think maybe on a good day we justify a place on a Waterstones shelf. Fuck us. We deserve our obscurity.
10. Is it realistic that the Kindle Store will one day feature more independent writers of literary fiction? Or will that category always reflect traditionally published writers with traditional marketing budgets? (This question relates to #9, I suppose.)
I think that’s up to us as writers. Self-publishing has to be the exciting place to be for literary writers. At the moment, if you’re an exciting new literary writer with something truly original to say, you’d probably start out wanting to be published by Galley Beggar or Bluemoose or Penned in the Margins or Melville House or Civil Coping Mechanisms. A few years ago, you’d have wanted to self-publish. If we want to see more stunning self-published literary books in the Kindle store we have to get back to that. Which is hard – and it makes you unpopular, because you are going against a massive tide in the self-publishing community that thinks there’s a whole tranche of literary fiction books that are the real deal that really aren’t, and it means calling that out so readers and writers don’t get disillusioned.
Fortunately, there *are* some people doing that. I’d single out the Pankhearst collective for embodying a fuck the word celebration of glorious failure; Rohan Quine for an imaginative ambition and scope that brings indie values to the largest possible creative canvas; Polly Trope for an unflinching commitment to both emotional and intellectual honesty. Someone on that list has the possibility to create a work that is truly important. Everyone on that list is contributing to an ethos that says this is where important stuff happens. We need more of that.
Comment: Questions or observations for Dan Holloway can be left in the comments section below. If you’re an author who wishes to join the ranks of other writers of literary fiction who have participated in the LitFic survey, click here.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines, which has appeared at festivals and fringes from Manchester to Stoke Newington. In 2010 he was the winner of the 100th episode of the international spoken prose event Literary Death Match, and earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available for Kindle at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Transparency-Sutures-Dan-Holloway-ebook/dp/B01A6YAA40.