After yesterday's news that Marc Nash's new novel, Three Dreams in the Key of G has been short-listed for this year's Not The Booker Prize, voted for by readers of The Guardian, here's a reminder of our recent interview with the author himself...
In peace-agreement Ulster a mother rears her two daughters, as her husband is decommissioned from his violent paramilitary past.
In Florida a septuagenarian runs a community refuge for women and the authorities have surrounded it as a threat to national security. In laboratories all over the world the human genome is being dissected and decoded.
In Three Dreams in the Key of G three female voices, Mother, Crone and Creatrix, unknowingly influence each other's fates as each battles to assert themselves and discover their voices in hostile environments.
Where did the ideas for Three Dreams in the Key of G come from and was it a conscious decision to use three female voices or did that happen organically from the original concept?
I’ve nearly always written with female main characters right back from my playwriting days. I like to write characters as far removed from me as possible and then in the course of writing travel out to meet them halfway or closer. That way it’s an exploration and discovery for me which will hopefully be the same experience for the reader. I also think such a method taps into the lesser seen parts of one’s own psyche, Jung’s anima for men, the animus in women.
Once the plot/structure called for three voices, then I knew it was a trinity of Mother, Crone and Creatrix. The actual stem cell idea for the whole book came from reading about how ‘misprints’ in genetic code when it divides and replicates are what cause mutations in genes (for good as in evolutionary adaptation and for bad in hereditary diseases) and I spliced that with misprints in written language, text out of order as it were. Everything else went from that.
You’ve tended to self-publish work in the past, so what prompted the change to work with the publisher Dead Ink Books for this one? How different has the writing process been for you because of that and have you found any distinct advantages or disadvantages over self-publishing?
I think the self-publishing experience was a useful learning curve, but I think I’d taken it as far as I could. Literary Fiction novels don’t fare well in the self-publishing market, it’s hard to obtain any visibility for them among the huge amount of titles coming online every day. Any book disappears from view after a mere fortnight online and you have to be extremely lucky to persist beyond that. Also it’s incredibly difficult to get into bookshops when you’re self-published, certainly not in the chains who use central ordering systems. Dead Ink provide access to all that. I think the only issue I’ve encountered so far with a publisher, is them applying their standard style guide to my work. We had a chat about that…
As well as being the author of several novels, you’re also well known for your Flash Fiction and seem to revel in the short intensity of the format. How difficult do you find it swapping between short and long form writing? Do you have a preference for one or other and does a story idea suggest its format to you or do you decide on which format you want to write and then think of an idea to suit it?
I’ve been writing flash for so long now, it’s easy swapping between the two for me. And I’m always led by the material as to what format/length suits it best. I began with novels and really only started writing flash to keep up visibility as a writer, but pretty quickly I appreciated how it fed into my novel writing; the experimentation with narrative form flash fiction provides, was an absolute boon to the longer pieces, while the prescription on verbiage honed my language no end. I owe a lot to flash fiction, it really helped me develop my approach to all narrative writing. It’s such a good exercise to do regularly if you can.
Your writing can be quite challenging to “those of us without a dictionary for a brain”, how important to you is your use of a complex vocabulary and grammar constructs in your writing? Do you consider the fact that it possibly alienates readers and is that a good thing from your point of view? And would you consider/have you ever been asked to work with a more commercial style to connect with a different audience, even though that may mean you sacrifice some of your unique style?
Firstly no one has ever dared suggest I go more conventional or commercial. I couldn’t write a mainstream book, either for the skills it demands which I don’t possess, nor could I stoke the requisite motivation to do so. I think anyone familiar with my work would realise it would be a non-starter for all concerned.
Second I acknowledge the language can be challenging, but that’s a mixture of two things; one, our language is imprecise and elliptical for conveying meaning accurately, so for me to convey precise ideas or emotions I have to get the words right. Why does the English language offer 25 or so words to mean ‘chastise’, when each has a slightly different shade of severity? This is the result of English being so lissom a tongue, absorbing French, Saxon, Latin, Greek, and words from the former colonies. So its elasticity is both its strength and weakness. It allows for great flexibility, but also an easy imprecision. Then secondly, there’s the interplay of words brought together; that can be in sound as poets will tell you, but it can also be in how words rub off one another. I like words that contain two contradictory meanings within them, such as ‘fast’ or ‘cleave’, or words that have decayed so much with usage that they come to mean the opposite of what their etymological root suggests - the word ‘endowed’ which today is often used for a man’s er puissance, comes from the same root as dowery, that is the money paid by the father of a bride.
I like word combinations that undermine the surety of meaning of each of the single words. So that can be word combos that take the edge off, or have the very opposite effect and ratchet up what the singular word would convey alone. And as to grammar, I think I’m just bad at it. It’s not a conscious subversion in the same way my use of words is. Having said that, I am trying to convey how we think and talk in reality, which is less fluid and fluent that a beautifully constructed sentence. It’s full of pauses, repetitions, ums and ahs, sentences that trail off, or disappear down a cul de sac. When you talk, you have cues of facial expression and gesture, which generally you don’t have in the written word, unless the author is going to rigorously describe the manner how each sentence is said. Better to use grammar to change the breathing for the reader, to stop them up short in unexpected ways, or have them run on unsure where the sentence is going to end. The style guide nixed a lot of my work here!
As to it being quite a high risk strategy, risking alienating the reader, I write with one axiom constantly in mind; never underestimate the reader. Ultimately the readers will decide if they like what you do or not. And that’s as it should be. As a reader myself, I am sent off happily in search of a dictionary if I come across an unfamiliar word and can’t figure it out from the context.
And how much work do you put into finding the right words and sentence structures that you want to use to convey your ideas on a page? You wrangle language really well and it seems fun and a very natural gift for you but is it, or is it hard work?
For me it is just like playing in a sandpit. Throwing words around like sand, compacting them together in the bucket of my mind and turning out integral word castles. Pure pleasure, though a liability in later edits because I spend most of the time finding even better word combinations rather than being really disciplined and attending to what I should be attending to. For me, finding word combos are creative, where editing is dry and technical and usually you are rejecting words from the text.
You’re very politically minded and vocal on Twitter [find Marc on Twitter at @21stCscribe]. Do you ever consider how far you go politically in your writing? Are there specific points where the literary you takes over from the political you?
This is a tough question that I wrangle with a lot. Firstly it has to be said there is very little market appetite for political writing in the UK. You can write about homegrown terrorism until the cows come home (I’ve made my own contribution to this), you can write about the NHS, maybe some class disjunction in personal relationships, but that’s about it. Where are the Brexit texts? Where are the works about institutional historic child abuse, or the clampdown on public protest and social spaces? There are very few, but I believe readers would happily lap them up if we could only persuade publishers to take a punt on them. It’s true that political work may age quickly, but then all contemporary novels quickly become historical in the course of just a generation. Presently when political themes are tackled, they are usually framed in the post-apocalyptic trope (again I’ve contributed a novel here), but that brings both a distance to the now of the issues and also suggests it’s too late for action as the book is already in the aftermath of whatever political disaster has befallen the earth.
The literary always has to come first, because books are primarily a form of entertainment and a voluntary leisure pursuit. If a reader of fiction picks up a book that turns out to be a political rant or a tract, chances are they’re not going to have been entertained. But I believe everything is political anyway, so for me it’s none too difficult to write politically in a novel that is still a damn good rollicking read. Any relationship can have a political aspect to it, in who holds the power at any moment within that relationship. Be it between lovers, parent and child, workers, people in a crowd, sporting contestants or whatever.
Following on from that, is there a particular subject matter that is still taboo for you, that you wouldn’t touch or is every subject up for grabs as far as your writing is concerned? And is there a subject that you still want to tackle but haven’t so far?
I think all art has the right to tackle any subject, but as the artist you better get it right in terms of doing it justice and with integrity and you better be prepared to stand by it and defend it. The artist who made the op-art portrait of Myra Hindley (child killer) from children’s handprints - in bad taste? To my mind yes, but he still has the right to make that artwork and take his chances with its reception. For me, it took 30 years to find a fitting medium to write about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge. I wanted to be sure I was treating it with due gravitas and not dishonouring the dead. If that story ever gets published, then I will have to see by its reception whether I judged it right. There are plenty of themes I wouldn’t touch, not because they are taboo, but simply as I don’t credit I could do justice to them.
The subject I want to grapple with and have been for the past year but not yet to a deep enough level, is death. Writing about my own death ahead of time. As a culture, death is taboo, actually dying, the eternity of lifelessness (unless one accepts an afterlife) and what all of this says or should say about our lives, its purpose and achieving/creating things that will be snatched away from you at some future point. Everything really ought to start from a contemplation of our own deaths, but I recognise most people can’t live life that way. But it bothers the hell out of me and always has since childhood. So I want to explore it somehow. I have this ridiculous ambition to get closer to it in fiction than has been done before. Visual artists like Damian Hirst have tackled it in inspiring ways, but I want to see if it can be done in words; something that no one can consciously experience and report, so any construction of that experience has to be a fiction.
Finally, what’s next on the cards for Marc Nash? Is there anything in the works that you can tell us about yet?
The next novel is already written, called “Stories We Tell Our Children” all about the pernicious nature of the stories we present our children with and the ‘reality’ of the world this creates and I will look for a home for it once this novel has had its day in the sun. But really it’s whatever comes into my seething mind and demands due treatment. I’m sure death will feature.