Could you tell our readers a bit more about yourself and your writing career so far?
I was born in Yorkshire but have lived most of my life in Scotland. I’ve always been interested in books and in writing, but began to apply myself seriously during the 1990s. My first published book was a literary erotic/ pornographic novel in the vein of George Bataille’s ‘The Story of the Eye’ and Anais Nin’s ‘Delta of Venus’ and was entitled, ‘The Snake’ (published in 1997 by Creation Books under a pseudonym, ‘Melanie Desmoulins’). Amusingly, to my knowledge, this was the first published novel in the whole of history ever to have been written by a non-white Scot! Next came an eclectic short story collection, ‘The Burning Mirror’ (Polygon, 2001), then a novella, a plaintive, winter love story set in Eastbourne, ‘The White Cliffs’ (Sandstone Press, 2004) – later I dramatised this for the stage – and ‘Psychoraag’ (Black and White Publishing, 2004), which was a high-octane novel set during a single summer’s night in a South Asian community radio station in Glasgow. My most recent book is ‘Joseph’s Box’ (Two Ravens Press, 2009), a quite different novel again. Of course, I’ve had lots of stuff published on the web and in anthologies, including short stories and several novellas and novelettes, and both ‘Psychoraag’ and ‘Joseph’s Box’ are available as e-books.
I try to explore something different with every book, to extend/ confound my own – and possibly also the readers’ – boundaries. It would bore me daft if I had to plough the same furrow, over and over. This means that some people might take to one of my books but not to another, and that’s fine. I get a high from writing – at least on good days! My writing often is driven by music, at various levels, especially music that makes you think and feel ‘out of the box’. Creative dissonance.
It’s been very hard work, largely because of fiduciary factors, and has occupied a lot of my existence for some years. There is a real human cost – and not just to me. This applies particularly because my work tends not to affirm the tropes of power – including the increasingly corporatised contemporary orthodoxies of creative writing. I don’t burnish the throne! However, in a key sense, writing is never work to me.
I’m very fortunate to have been able to perform my work in various parts of the world – Europe, Asia, North America – and to engage with audiences in these places as well as with some superb writers, literary academics and other artists.
I’ve written multiple pieces – drama, ‘wisdom’ pieces, monologues, miscellany – for BBC radio and also have had produced several stage-plays. I’ve also reviewed books for various newspapers.
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At what precise moment did you realise that you were a writer?
I don’t think there was a ‘Eureka’ moment. It’s a much more gradual and angst-ridden process. Obviously, having a first story, and later, a first book, published are major watersheds – though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, possibly because one has put so much work in, it’s not like winning a raffle, more like passing an exam! And the process of self-questioning goes on – this is necessary, creatively, for an artist. I think that some writers can get too comfortable and complacent in their success and it shows in their work. But you do have to have deep oceans of self-belief if you want to do serious art, because a lot of people – sometimes some of those close to you as well as those in the business and complete strangers – will try to bring you down. Envy is a monkey’s paw – many people don’t know what you’ve been through, they think that you and the books arrived, ready-made, just like that, like a chocolate in Willy Wonka’s factory. There’s blood on the page. But if there is a Eureka moment – and there is, with every book – it’s receiving that little box of (either five or ten) copies which all authors get on publication, it’s peeling off the brown tape and – with trembling hands – slicing open the sealed fissure, taking care not to damage the books within. There’s a mixture of trepidation – what if it’s all gone wrong, the cover, the print, the pages, the entire thing? – and excited anticipation. It’s hugely enjoyable and also, strangely enough, humbling. It’s like, “Oh my God. There it is. What have I done?”
What would you say have been the highlights of your writing career so far?
Watching actors take my words and bring them to life on stage or on the radio – that’s something moving and magical: ‘Did I write that?’ Connecting with readers/ listeners who got into, were moved by, any of my work. It particularly was gratifying to visit Pakistan on a couple of occasions over the past few years and to meet people, especially other artists and students, who seemed to understand what I was trying to do. Connecting with musicians whose work I admire and found inspiring. Really, it’s a million-word scream into the universe.
Being short-listed for, or winning, prizes, etc. is always good – other people tend to take your work more seriously – and knowing that your books being exegetised at academic conferences is fulfilling, but one must not become addicted to the approval of a peer group or to the fencing social repartee and ego-trip element of the literary festival. If you’re doing something singular, you should expect not to be feted and you need to be able to continue, regardless.
Your work has always been well received and actually you’ve had some pretty great compliments along the way – like the one about being more thoughtful than Rushdie…do you think praise can help or hinder the creative process?
You’re very kind. Actually, in a sort of strange bipolarity, critics have tended either to really love my work, or to hate it with a vengeance! I’d rather it be like that, than for people to say, “Oh well, that was… okay, competant”. I find this interesting that historians, in particular, tend to ‘get’ what I’m doing. Praise is always good – take it, savour it, quote it, put it in a glass frame up on your wall so it radiates good vibes. It can help you get through the brickbats and blanking-out of your work. But it’s important not to come to need adulation or affirmation. By definition, writing is a solitary pursuit.
Could you tell us about your latest novel, Joseph’s Box?
Joseph’s Box is a love-song, with death at is heart.
Recently-bereaved Zulee MacBeth wades into the Clyde one morning and recovers a large box, with which she becomes obsessed. Zulee is a doctor, and is troubled by the care of patient Archie MacPherson, a dying, visionary ex-WW2 airman and Glasgow shipyard worker who is an ambivalent, sometimes terrifying character. The discovery of the box brings her together with Alex, a lute-playing clerk, and they manage to open the box, only to find six further boxes inside which they can only open once they have followed cryptic clues.
The clues lead Zulee and Alex on a physical and emotional journey through Glasgow, Argyll, Lincolnshire, Sicily, Lahore and finally, the frozen peaks of Little Tibet and the ‘Roof of the World’. The journey helps Zulee come to terms with the deaths of her son and mother, and with the troubled history of her mother’s Afghan-Indian family. The book draws on Jewish, Greek and Buddhist legends and like the Biblical/ Quranic Joseph, the main characters progress through the seven Sufi stations of sacrifice, truth, power, obedience, life, memory and beauty.
I conceived of the book around 2000, but it grew from streams which I had been pursuing for some time before that, streams of history, land, memory, music, spirituality and the essential contiguities of human culture. The novella, ‘The Spanish House’ explored this nexus in relation to the Iberian peninsula, while the novella, ‘The Saelig Tales’ delved into deepest England and the novelette, ‘The Aerodrome’ positioned a trans-cultural dynamic amidst the blood and fire of the Second World War. All of these slow-paced, (to borrow a musical reference) ‘folk baroque’ pieces were penned during the period 2000-2002 while I was limbering-up to begin the magnum opus of ‘Joseph’s Box’.
The lute was the instrument of love during the High Mediaeval and Early Modern periods and both its name and physical form derive from the Arabic al ‘ud (‘the wood’), itself an important symbol in civilisations such as that extant in Moorish Spain. The origins of the forebears of the instrument are almost hidden in the mists of time, beginning possibly as the nefer (‘beauty’) in Ancient Egypt or else in Persia (‘rud’ – ‘stringed instrument’). The transfiguration of the lute and its music relates to the journeys of the characters in the novel, from the shores of Western Europe back to the mountains of Central Asia. Unlike the guitar, the lute is an instrument of melancholy rather than mania – a resonance more appropriate to the themes of bereavement, time’s passage, etc. – and the double-stringed incongruity of its placement in a contemporary setting and that of its virtuoso among the lower-middle classes of central Scotland – is one of the triggers for dislocation, adventure, development and resolution.
The Judeo-Christian-Islamic prophet, Joseph (Yusuf) in Islamic legend is the exemplification of the highest form of love; the story of ‘Yusuf and Zuleikha’ is a classic of Persian literature. He is the man-in-the-well, the seer; one gazes upon his visage and sees a Platonic image of one’s own perfection. The box, like the house of seven doors through which Yusuf had to traverse to reach Zuleikha, represents a quest for an elusive truth. Each box may contain a signifier, but until it is opened, all it contains is darkness. However, it is not really a ‘puzzle’ novel.
This adult fantasy arises as much from the black wax cylinders of Cecil Sharp and the ligneous echoes of the tales of Thomas the Rhymer as from the djinns and dancers of the continuum which arguably stretches from the Indo-Burmese border to West Africa and to rugged coast of the west of Ireland.
‘Joseph’s Box’ draws on a catholicity of forms – the epic, the picaresque, the digressive, the Early Modern novel, the texts, imagery and sounds of entheogenic and shamanic experience – as well as on the rubric of the contemporary ‘roman’. It is a novel which aims wholly to absorb the reader by spinning a web of confluence between history, consciousness, place, time, sound and the flow of the river along whose banks we all dwell.
This form of narrative development permits exploration of the hybridisation of the personality from a position of bourgeois singularity to one of totemised pantheism. ‘Joseph’s Box’ opens up a field for the symbiosis of the techniques of geopoeticism with those of interiority, so that it presents the ‘stone-and-water’ dioramas of Kenneth White but with an added (and, in my view, rather important) dimension: people.
The human condition of suffering, mortality, bereavement, loss necessitates the development of love. With an awareness of history and of the stories whose efflorescence renders form and meaning to that history, ‘Joseph’s Box’ explores this very personal nexus in the context of the contemporary, necessarily cosmopolitan, world through the lives of individual women and men living in specific places and times in the world. The juxtaposition of ‘gritty political realism’, for example, the story of a flawed man in a post-industrial metropolis dying of asbestos-related lung disease, with these metaphysical concerns results in the construction of a singular and effective aesthetic and a symphonic range of emotional cadence.
There are many sub-texts to the book, but one of the most powerful is the positing of a deep and shared human reality which is the antithesis of the tribalistic world-views which cause so much misery. It is perhaps a defining condition of being that we cannot know ourselves. You can read more at: http://www.josephsbox.co.uk/
I loved the lyrical poetic writing style – its almost dreamlike – and am still not sure if it was all a dream or real. What were you hoping to achieve through writing this way?
Thanks. Music. Psychedelia. Transfiguration. It goes well with Turkish coffee! I paraphrase from a review in The Sunday Herald, which basically said that by the end of ‘Joseph’s Box’, ‘a reader may have come to view the world in a different way. And isn’t that what fiction is for?’ Reading it – and I would advise total immersion; think of yourself, somewhat absurdly, as a hermit in an abandoned monastery, high on a barren hill; one may well enter a different state of consciousness. It’s a sufic technique. This is one of the reasons why ‘Joseph’s Box’ is not written to conform to the internal or macroscopic structures of the standard novel – this is why some have said that it’s not really a novel. But then, they said that also about ‘Psychoraag’, though for different critical reasons! In fact, there are a number of very unmodern techniques and structures in the text. It proves baffling to some, and this may be because we have forgotten how to approach such narratives. In ‘Joseph’s Box’, among other things, I draw on epic structures – think of the Mahabharata or the Shahnameh, and also on essences from folk song, on deep oral narratives and shared memory. There’s also a whole other – tangential – set of ‘Joseph’s Box’ narratives on the ‘Joseph’s Box’ website, so I’ve explored ancient forms also through the application of very modern technology. Italo Calvino is there, somewhere. The physical book itself is only a part of the story. Really, one ought to apply the types of exegesis commonly used in analysing religious texts to ‘Joseph’s Box’; perhaps this is no accident, since truly the book itself emerged from a series of odd scrolls sent to me by a mysterious unknown.
So you’re published by Two Ravens Press. What’s it like working with an independent publisher? Do you think there are certain advantages?
I’ve worked with four or five independents for my own books and a number of other independents in relation to anthologies, etc. The advantages are that the publisher tends to be very personally committed to your work and gives it their individual attention. You also get some real involvement in deciding matters such as the cover design. I’m very pleased with Two Ravens Press – nowadays, such intellectual and brave publishers are like gold dust. The downside, of course, is that small, independent publishers cannot get your books simultaneously onto the shelves of shops in Elgin, Knightsbridge, Brooklyn and Karachi and they may find it hard to get you an interview with the English Rose daughter of Lord Hallelujah Doodleypush, who recently has been chauffeured from the University of Cambridge to a job on The Daily Telegraph/ New Statesman/ Prospect.
You’ve got five novels under your belt – what do you see as your next challenge?
Five books – three novels, a novella and a short story collection – in hard copy and, as I said, a lot of other material on the web or elsewhere in anthologies. I’d very much like to write another novel and in fact I have written another stage-play which, given will and foresight, I think is eminently producible, but all this will have to wait until I have amassed sufficient funds and that may be a while. In the meantime, it is likely that shorter pieces – for print or for radio – will predominate.
Do you write for you, or for someone else?
Both, simultaneously. I write for an elusive hypothesised reader, a kind of shifting, ever-present, critical emanation of, and mirror to, myself. Perhaps because some of my work is ‘challenging’ and is a mixture of the highbrow and lowbrow, people sometimes ask, “Do you think of your readers?”. To which I reply, “To which reader do you refer?” The one who thought that ‘Psychoraag’ was the best thing since sliced bread, or the one who couldn’t stand it? Readerships are constructed just as writers are constructed. Perhaps the best way of putting it would be to say that I strive to write for something that is beyond myself.
If someone told you tomorrow that you would have to give up writing what is the first thing you would say/do?
Some say that the Punjabi language – a beautifully poetic and explicative language – also possesses the best expletives. Check the glossary at the back of ‘Psychoraag’’ for some examples of neo-logistic ‘four-letter’ words. Failing that, I would transform into Darth Vader.
In recent more difficult times, what advice would you give to an aspiring/first time writer?
Read widely and deeply, try to extend your horizons, don’t let anyone limit you. Consider joining a good writers’ group, and/ or maybe a creative writing course.
I would say, try to guard against slipping into the contemporary orthodoxies of Anglophone elites based in NYC/ London, but the truth is, almost everything now directs writers to pander to the expectations fostered by ‘received wisdom’. This has been the case for some time in relation to the teaching of screenwriting. If you want to make money, you’d leap into the crime/ romance/ children’s genres because it’s much more difficult to make any money writing literary fiction. Understand that (predominately, or normatively, white, upper-middle class) gatekeepers in the UK, Europe and North America tend as a cohort to be hideously ignorant of any ‘other’ cultures as well as of history itself, and that they often will expect certain types of writing from authors of South Asian provenance. Understand also that, at least in the corporate publishing-retailing sector, fundamentalist marketeers have taken over and that this too distorts what gets published/ marketed.
Remember that nothing – even stuff penned by the best writers – is anywhere near perfect, straight off. Don’t be inhibited by reading great writing – be stimulated by it! We all started-off as beginners. Maybe read one useful book about creative writing techniques, but don’t read too many! Don’t confuse creative writing with art therapy. Don’t wait for inspiration – inspiration is generated through the physical and metal process of writing. Ideas arise from things, not the other way around. Accept constructive criticism but don’t be paralysed by it and realise that everyone will have a different critique of a particular work. At times, everything you write will seem like garbage, and at other times, wonderful – it is normal to have these perceptions. Everything you write is singular. Just keep on, hone the craft and love doing it, even if it takes twelve drafts! The story is the beloved, and you are the lover. If you have talent, you’ll come to realise it. Above all, play!