Rohan Quine is the 11th author to participate in my interview series with independent authors of literary fiction. If you publish independently and wish to participate, please click through the image on the right column of the screen that reads “Call for Survey Respondents: Indie Authors of Literary Fiction”. If you wish to receive email notices when future interviews are published, click the link toward the bottom of this post, just above the bio.
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.
The novel is The Beasts of Electra Drive, which is complete but still being polished, to be published later this year or early next year. It’s a prequel to my five existing publications – i.e. the novel The Imagination Thief, and the novellas The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes and Hallucination in Hong Kong. Those five can each stand alone, but they can also be read as stemming from this new prequel novel. The Beasts of Electra Drive shows the origins of the seven main characters who populate the world of those other five tales, which are already loosely nested alongside or within one another; and it also shows the birth of those tales themselves, through presenting them as five different “games” designed by this new novel’s protagonist, who’s a games designer. But enough of this chi-chi waffling: I feel a strapline coming on, whose long version is the following paragraph.
“From Hollywood Hills mansions and Century City towers, to South Central motels and the oceanside refinery, the novel spans a mythic L.A., following seven spectacular characters (or Beasts) from games designer Jaymi’s created world. The intensity of those Beasts’ creation cycles leads to their secret release into real life in human form, and their combative protection of him from destructive rivals at mainstream company Bang Dead Games. The Beasts of Electra Drive is a fast-paced and surreal explosion of glamour and beauty, horror and enchantment, celebrating the mechanisms and magic of creativity itself.”
I’ll be hiring a regiment of S.A.S. heavies, for various purposes but in particular to wrestle that strapline to the ground and slap it into a more svelte, streamlined, slinky form. As for a hyperlink, this novel will soon be given its own proper menu and web pages, which’ll be easy to locate via my homepage http://www.rohanquine.com.
But until then, its online presence is so far just the following single post (written when novelist Polly Trope and Noel Maurice kindly previewed a frisky little snippet of Beasts in the magazine indieberlin), where you can also read the novel’s brief synopsis.
2. Was the seed of your story an idea or an image? Are you a visual or a conceptual writer, in other words?
At the level of written detail, all these stories are intensely visual from start to finish. In a wider sense, the seed of this novel was conceptual, however: it was to celebrate the beauty, horror, mirth and complexities of our individual human quests to inhabit life as richly and passionately as possible.
To the best of its very finite abilities, The Beasts of Electra Drive attempts to illuminate the possibilities of our individual human lives and imaginations in this world, using language – thereby attempting to leave the world infinitesimally richer and more beautiful than it was. It aims to reflect readers’ internal lives in ways they haven’t quite been reflected before, unearthing unexpected love and beauty from within the brutality of the world. In particular, the novel aims to explore the darkest and brightest corners of human imagination; to wring as much beauty as possible from this harshly-designed life where we seem to have landed without sufficient consultation ahead of time; and then to explore and interrogate that beauty with rigour, sensuality and humour. Regarding the less well-designed aspects of the human condition, it also seeks ways of our transcending those aspects with emotional and aesthetic honesty, love, and a healthy dose of mirth along the way.
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?
That theme existed at the beginning, but it grew in the telling, as I’d hoped. One way in which it did so was perhaps in becoming darker and sharper than anticipated. There are tons of joy, beauty and humour celebrated in the novel, as intended; but I suppose it also came to include something of a damning indictment of certain things that I think deserve this. Among other things, the protagonist Jaymi is using his own truth (championing complexity, unconventionality, beauty and subtlety) in order to confront his four antagonists’ lie (which tends to champion simplicity, convention, utility and obviousness). That lie of theirs is a very tabloid-flavoured one, as it happens, because the main thing they’re creating is a tabloid-news-based game called Ain’tTheyFreaky!, in the face of which Jaymi creates an implicit challenge by example, aiming to refresh his antagonists’ expectations and understanding of how they might use their own creative power for something less destructive and down-dragging than they do use it for.
The Beasts of Electra Drive shows that within the glorious, multitudinous, fucked-up fascination of our situation in the world, each of us is essentially alone, and that cruelty and suffering are able to target any one of us at a moment’s notice if they’re inclined to. But it also shows that love, beauty and humour all continue to insist on arising between and within most of us, making riches available to many of us. The novel suggests our need to evolve. Yet it also suggests that one way to increase our chances of raising our heads above the asphalt (our own heads and other people’s) is for all of us to put active and serious energy into inhabiting and exercising our creative and compassionate imaginations, in whatever ways we each can.
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?
If I’m correct to read “alpha” here as evoking the early testing/tweaking phase of newly-written software, then I guess the only arena in which I found myself being tweaked by the material, rather than vice versa, was the macro-level narrative structure of the whole thing. For its high-level plot construction, I obediently allowed myself to be directed by how the novel’s characters and main forces were going to have to interact and conflict with one another throughout its duration, in order to achieve: (1) an escalating external dramatisation of the real story, which is necessarily an internal journey (in this case a journey that’s taken as much by the four antagonists as by the protagonist); and (2) a dialect of cause and effect, to countervail the material’s picaresque tendencies.
To do justice to the off-the-wall mode of game-creation it explores, The Beasts of Electra Drive’s structure itself had to be a bit non-standard, in certain deliberate ways: it needed to instantiate a rebellion from convention, as well as depicting one. But always so as to fuse with the content – not just for a lark. In order to help keep my intended envelope-pushings under a beneficial control, however, I read James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, some Lisa Cron and some K.M. Weiland (especially regarding her “flat character arc” model), so as to ensure that I do incorporate whatever “standard” elements the novel can accommodate, without falsifying its essential and cussed disobedience.
5. There are as many definitions of “literary fiction” as there are self-identified literary writers. What is your definition of literary fiction?
Almost by definition, from a writer’s POV the LitFic category tends to include many novels that were written with a less-than-average awareness of category-based expectations. From a reader’s POV instead, maybe it’s a category where the readership’s expectations are less-than-usually focused on, or aware of, considerations that are unique to it as a category.
But more importantly, writing in any category may electrify, or not. And, of course, different readers are electrified by different things, which is fine. Often when I’m electrified by a novel, it’s because the author is doing what I describe next for question 6. I’m aware that numerically this particular cause of electrification is one that works only for a tiny minority of readers, but that’s cool: I’ve never been interested in writing novels or novellas that have aims other than I describe next, and I suspect I’d be genetically unable to allow numerical considerations to change the missions I’m electrified to pursue, even if wanted or tried to!
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”?
As always, the mission is very much to challenge and expand. While aiming to make the results as externally accessible, engaging and entertaining as I possibly can without falsifying anything, my main target for this challenge and expansion is myself, without compromise. And whichever readers also happen to connect with these results in this same adventurous way, I seriously adore them for doing so, because that’s a unique journey we’ve both taken together.
I’m well aware it’s of no grand importance whether or not I express what happens to be my own internal world, with the myriad intimate reflections and nuances that have been allotted to that world, as I do in these six tales; but because they’re the things I know best, these intimate details and nuances provide me with the truest way of dealing as best I can with the wider aspects of human existence that transcend all individuals including me. As an altogether separate consideration from the degree to which I succeed in this endeavour, my aim is to communicate an authentic vision of the meaning of human life that can extend outwards from my own limited ambit, using written language to express what I believe I’ve learned about our presences here. I hope to contribute to our rising above our individual points of view, to a place where we see the world, including ourselves, from above. Almost by definition, this is to aim for something whose full attainment extends beyond both my own powers and the powers of the written medium itself, and to me it has always had the feeling of peering outwards into the spaces around and within us … but the attempt at least, as I feel it, is a rich and lovely challenge!
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.
When writing, I’m guided only by what’s most true to the best vision I’m equipped to express, in the context of knowing this expression is a communication and engagement with other human beings rather than just with myself. I’m aiming to push imagination and language towards their extremes, in order to explore and illuminate the beauty, horror and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time. As a retrospective analysis of this, I think in terms of three questions.
(1) How can I illuminate the world, to the best of my finite abilities, using language in new and old ways, and thereby leave the world infinitesimally better than it was beforehand?
(2) How can I aim and attune my ears as clearly as possible to whatever the highest artistic potential may be, then bring down the richest results from that place, then give those results the truest and most beautiful form I can create?
(3) How can what I write take an honest account of the darkness and pain in the world, while at the same time being a vote for life (maybe even an absolute blast of fun along the way)?
A less retrospective analysis would be to say that the process feels like some kind of heat-seeking one. But either way, any and all category or genre considerations are so subsidiary to the above mission, that I guess I land in the LitFic category.
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?
As with the other five tales, this novel’s DNA is very much literary fiction, but with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror. If it had ever occurred to me to join any writing group, which it never did, then I’d probably have been advised to force them into a tidy category instead, to simplify the marketing aspect. It’s fun to step across genres, but it’s not something I set out to do – they simply emerge that way. (Foyles ended up having to shelve The Platinum Raven and other novellas and The Imagination Thief in three different departments – LitFic, Fantasy/SciFi and Horror.)
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?
Compared with other fiction categories’ readerships, that of literary fiction is more diffuse and elusive in its locations, which has made it more of a challenge for publishers to market to for many decades. That diffuseness may give the impression of a closed door, if someone’s on the lookout for closed doors, but in the case of the LitFic category I’m not sure there is a door, either open or closed, or even a room at all. I suspect there are just many individual readers and writers, whose natural tendencies as such may cause the idea of reading and/or writing in communities to be one that doesn’t leap to mind instinctively.
But social fun and frolic certainly occurs. Coming up soon, for instance, Dan Holloway and I shall be getting grilled about The Beasts of Electra Drive in a filmed panel with the sassy/horsy/horny title “Preserving the Unicorn”, which is the Literary Fiction panel at the Triskele LitFest 2016, in Angel, London, on 17 September. Dan is a professional editor, who’ll be giving a developmental edit to this recently-completed draft of the novel; and he’s a poet and novelist, as you know, whose output includes the brilliant novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall.
He’s also a blogger who very kindly reviewed my novel, The Imagination Thief, in The Guardian and published a detailed interview about it in his own eight cuts gallery. The Triskele LitFest will also have several panels devoted to other cool categories of fiction, plus a bookshop selling books by all panelists and by many other accomplished writers too. And it’s free to get in. So if you’ll be in town on that day, do check out the above #TLF16 website and please come join us.
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.)
On all the independent publishing platforms (Amazon’s, Apple’s, Kobo’s, Google’s, Barnes & Noble’s and the others), I’m sure those numbers will climb steadily, yes, as LitFic authors either pivot away from their existing traditional contracts or decide prospectively that they wouldn’t want to risk tangling with such contractual terms to begin with.
For example, as Helen Sedwick’s and Orna Ross’s recent book How Authors Sell Publishing Rights says, “Within most trade-publishing contracts […] the publishing house will request [rights in] perpetuity, unless the book goes out of print, which rarely occurs in the POD/e-book era.” Approved by my agent at the time, I signed a traditional contract a few years ago with publisher Aflame Books, whose backlist (of twenty literary fiction titles in their first English translations) was about to be supplemented by a new imprint for original-English-language fiction, starting with my novel The Imagination Thief as this imprint’s launch title.
Aflame were then hit by the recession, unfortunately, and ceased trading in 2011, soon after receiving a box of advance review copies of my novel – at which point they were a model of goodwill, regarding rights and all else. But what the above quotation means is that the great majority of traditional contracts effectively require an author to sign away rights for life, with no assurance of any goodwill or practicably enforceable requirement for reversion of those rights.
So now in 2016, when authors look at traditional publishers, they see an uncomfortable overlap: (1) those publishers can no longer support a title with marketing that’s both significant and sustained (except for a tiny handful of big releases); and yet (2) publishers (and agents) are still expecting contracts to sign away rights for life, in effect. I suspect more and more writers will question whether that overlap is such a good look – especially when all media industries are in such unpredictable flux. It’s not a far-fetched possibility, for instance, that in a few years’ time many of the novels whose rights have been licensed to traditional imprints may become irretrievable line-items on accountants’ spreadsheets in whatever conglomerates or hedge-funds end up inheriting such assets, since some unforeseeable number of those publishers will have had no choice, sadly, but to wind down.
Beyond steering clear of those risks, however, I should add that I’ve never been interested in promoting any particular publication route: it’s the literary magic I’m focused on, and the only non-human aspects of the industry I’m really interested in are those that’ll somehow enable that magic.
Comment: Questions or observations for Rohan Quine 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.
Rohan Quine is a writer of literary fiction with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror, celebrating the beauty, darkness and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time. His novel “The Imagination Thief” is published in paperback, and as an ebook including links to film/audio/photographic content. Some reviews are available in “The Guardian” and elsewhere.
His four novellas – “The Platinum Raven”, “The Host in the Attic”, “Apricot Eyes” and “Hallucination in Hong Kong” – are published in paperback as “The Platinum Raven and other novellas”, and as four separate ebooks. Click here for reviews.
His upcoming title will be “The Beasts of Electra Drive”, now barrelling down the pipeline…
Visit Rohan’s website or connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.
Rohan Quine says
Jay, thanks so much for these intelligent questions of yours, and for giving me generous space to ramble here. And it’s a cool coincidence that your previous post three days ago, about Bruce Springsteen, has an unexpected connection with this post: the town of Asbury Park (whose unofficial “godfather” he is, being so associated with it) just happens to be the location for the vast majority of my novel “The Imagination Thief”. He doesn’t come into the novel, but when I settled down to start writing it in Asbury Park, sitting alone at dusk at the window of the dimly cavernous Room 629 in the hotel on the north-west corner of Ocean and Sunset, I was sitting just across the street from the Convention Center where he’s performed so often. I’m happy to see the town is now in much better economic shape than it was then, but I was well alive to its enchantments at that time nonetheless, as I describe at http://www.rohanquine.com/home-imagination-thief/the-imagination-thiefs-location-asbury-park/
Thank you for the interview!
Rohan Quine says
Jay, thanks so much for these intelligent questions of yours, and for giving me generous space to ramble here. And it’s a cool coincidence that your previous post three days ago, about Bruce Springsteen, has an unexpected connection with this post: the town of Asbury Park (whose unofficial “godfather” he is, being so associated with it) just happens to be the location for the vast majority of my novel The Imagination Thief. He doesn’t come into the novel, but when I settled down to start writing it, sitting alone at dusk at the window of the dimly cavernous Room 629 in the hotel on the north-west corner of Ocean and Sunset, I was just across the street from the Convention Centre where I was aware he’d played so often. I’m happy to see the town is now in much better economic shape than it was then, but I was well alive to its enchantments at that time nonetheless, as I describe at http://www.rohanquine.com/home-imagination-thief/the-imagination-thiefs-location-asbury-park/
Thank you for the interview!
Jay Lemming says
Rohan, thanks for taking the time to be so thoughtful in your replies. This interview was definitely one of the winners. I’m also glad to hear about the Asbury Park connection; yes, I’m a huge Springsteen fan. I’m in the middle of another novel right now (All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage) but I will check out The Imagination Thief shortly. Take care and best of luck with the Preserving the Unicorn panel.
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
I have read this interview several times now, and am starting to feel the magnitude of attempting to define indie literary fiction. It isn’t going to be a single definition, because both Jane Eyre and American Gods and Lolita have to fit.
It’s almost as if regular fiction, removing the junk, were all confined in a circle, and literary is everything outside the circle – so some parts will be further from each other than anything IN the circle. So each literary novel pushes the boundaries in a different direction. As all analogies, it fails to describe the whole, and it may be possible to put some works closer to each other on the periphery.
An exclusive definition, rather than an inclusive one.
But still a category where you can, as a reader, find the extraordinary writing.
‘But it also shows that love, beauty and humour all continue to insist on arising’ is something I’m happy to get behind.
The artist in control? And readers being offered a true experience? And certainly not the latest Inspector Smiley book #39.
Rohan Quine says
“Outside the circle” feels attractive, yes. Or by extension, “outside the sphere”. In either case, free to focus up/out/around/down into space in all directions, to whatever distance is necessary or possible, with the whole of oneself pressing against the ether, and without having to care whether this whole self will be able to fit inside any round boundary!
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
I like it. Outside the sphere.
How about this:
Fiction is the Earth.
Commercially published literary fiction is the thin crust on the Earth where we live, and maybe the atmosphere.
Indie self-published literary fiction is the rest, to the infinite edge of the universe.
Rohan Quine says
And as business models continue to evolve, and as new media formats bring in new permutations of hybridness over the next decade, that Earth will become more like Uranus in the sense that its surface will become a much more fuzzy and continuous gradation from solid into fluid into gas into vacuum, where it can’t be specified exactly where the planet ends and space begins…