Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Christien Gholson talks to Paul Cooper and Nia Davies

Christien Gholson is author of a novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind and a prose-poetry collection, On the Side of the Crow, both published by Parthian. His dystopian short story, The Feed, is published in the winter edition of New Welsh Review, out next week. Paul Cooper is currently an intern at New Welsh Review and will take up his MA in Creative Writing at UEA next September. Nia Davies works at Literature Across Frontiers, has published poetry for Salt anthologies, and is drafting her first novel.

David Mitchell recently described Hari Kunzru’s new novel Gods Without Men as ‘an echo chamber’. I felt this description also applied to A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind – such a varied mix of voices and influences resonating together: from Magritte and Rimbaud to The Battleship Potemkin. Do you feel this is an accurate description of your novel, or indeed novels in general?

I recently saw a conversation on the Lannan Foundation site between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje, two of my favourite authors, in which they both spoke about echoes. Ondaatje said that when he was writing In the Skin of a Lion he was immersed in the murals of Diego Rivera. “Someone’s holding a wrench over there on that wall,” he said, “and someone’s holding a pencil over there on that wall. It’s exactly the same gesture...” Those echoes intrigued him, and he mirrored them in gestures and scenes between all the characters in the novel. Berger said of echoes: “No story exists without them, really”, and I would agree. All the characters in Fish are different aspects of one whole; each particular narrative trajectory needs the others to find its completion. The pattern of the novel is, for the most part, the order in which it was written, so anything that was left unsaid, or unfinished, is completed by someone else in a following chapter. If you lifted just one character’s narrative out of the book and read it all by itself, I’m not sure it would make sense.

My own experience is that the self doesn’t really exist as some rigid, defined thing – an isolated billiard ball clacking against others – but that it exists only in context, mired in a constant process of creation and interaction with its surroundings. As the master magician Chiqui says to Guy: “Nothing exists by itself.” Everything is in a constant process of being created; the idea that things exist in isolation is, to me, an illusion. That surfaced in the pattern of the book - in a community of characters that, in the end, couldn’t exist without each other.

Most people imagine a novel starting with a single idea, a ‘eureka moment’. Was this the case for you? What was the initial spark or germ that you felt carried it through to the end? In what ways did its conceit mutate and develop as you wrote?

If you mean that in terms of a vision where a skeleton of the entire story appears all at once, then no, that didn’t happen. It started as a long prose-poem sequence: fish swimming through fog over the Belgian countryside (which now appears as one of Marie’s visions about three quarters of the way through the book). I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomena of animals, insects, or other odd things raining from the sky - the mystery of it. And I’ve been equally fascinated with the funny contortions that Science and the excessively logical-minded must do to explain it.

The prose-poem sequence turned into the opening of a short story. All the characters were there at the beginning, except the Rimbaud scholar, Raoul. The short story seemed unfinished somehow, so I thought I’d expand it a bit more, turn it into a novella. The more I worked on it, the more I encountered odd surprises that propelled me further, deeper, and I just kept following the trail of crumbs.

So the mystery of the fish was the initial question - the initial koan - that appeared, and I took a whole novel to ‘answer’ that question.

Your family travelled a lot, including to Belgium, where the novel is set. How much of the novel is an account of your own experiences, and how much is imaginative invention? Do any of the events have a basis in reality?

Between the ages of 10 to 15 I lived in Obourg, a cement factory town in Southern Belgium, somewhat like the town of Villon. Years later, as a young adult, I walked across Southern France, and then lived for a month in the municipal campground in Mons, which is near Obourg. Many strange things had happened to me on the journey and I needed a familiar and comforting place to let it all sink in.

While I was in Mons, I wandered out to Obourg and saw posters all over the town announcing: “Obourg...poubelle d’Europe.” Obourg...rubbish bin of Europe. I asked around and found out that the cement factory was to lease their empty quarries as toxic dumps for waste that would be imported from all over Europe – and there was a movement to stop it. Similar issues are still ongoing in that area, if I’m not mistaken.

I hesitate to go into more detail about what was my own experience and what is imaginative invention because a couple of the most ridiculous and illusory scenes really happened. It’s a truism to say that life is stranger than fiction. Fish do indeed fall from the sky.

A Fish... is set in an area of Belgium heavily touched by industrialism, near to an enormous quarry and a cement factory. Did you find any inspiration for the setting in Wales’ industrial past, and your time living in Swansea?

Oddly enough I wrote the book in the Central Valley of California, in Davis and Sacramento. The only similarity I found in California to southern Belgium was the smog. As a kid, though, the broken landscape and rain of cement dust was all I knew. Because my father didn’t work at the factory, I had an economic distance from it: I saw it as both a great evil monolith – especially when one of my sisters developed breathing problems - and as a mysterious and sometimes beautiful thing. There’s nothing like a sunset through plumes of cement dust. It’s only when I started working in factories around Philadelphia that my deep rage at industry’s enormous waste began. Many people live far away from the factories that make their lives possible. They don’t see the incredible cost – to the earth, to individual lives. The factories are invisible to them. In the novel, the cement factory is almost as consistent an image as the mysterious fish. It is mysterious only because it is so big, dominant... and yet invisible.

Living in Swansea, with the steel works of Port Talbot a constant vision on the east side of the bay, has triggered memories of the various industrial and industrially ‘forsaken’ places where I have lived. Still, on clear nights the flames from the flare stacks are beautiful, a match to the eye. But I see it from a distance. A tourist’s view. Factories like that make Mumbles and Swansea possible. Yet who is clocking the cost?

The novel takes illusion as one of its main themes, and I wondered if you see the writing of a novel, and indeed poetry, as a fundamentally illusory process?

There’s a bit of the magic trick about novel writing. You want the devices and tricks you use to be transparent, unobserved, so the reader can sink into the dream of the story. So, yes, there’s a bit of distraction involved; a bit of talking your way through the trick, keeping the audience focused on the monologue, so no one notices how the egg or the coin actually disappeared. There’s nothing worse for me when I’m reading a story than constantly ‘seeing’ how it was put together. I want be unaware of the devices and techniques used.

I definitely see writing as a trickster activity. Far in the background of Fish, there is the figure of Til Eulenspeigel - the itinerant vagrant of the Middle Ages who plays the fool in order to expose vice and greed and hypocrisy. At the time I wrote Fish I was also steeped in North American Coyote tales. And Zen Buddhism has a bit of the brain-breaking trickster aspect about it, too. The beauty is that the trick, the illusion, reveals a truth that sometimes cannot be told any other way. What’s the Picasso line about art? “Lies that tell the truth.”

Many have commented on the seeming ease with which poets can turn their skills to the practice of fiction (Joe Dunthorne and Anne Michaels for example). Do you feel that your background as a poet prepared you for the challenge of writing the novel? Did you discover any surprising difficulties?

Although I’ve written many prose-poems that seem to have a narrative line, quite a bit of the poetry I write and read has no conventional narrative. Most of my poetry makes connections by juxtaposition or in the flow of the overall pattern, and I think poets with more of a narrative bent are more likely to ‘get’ the tools of fiction.

Having said that, as a poet I think I picked up description and dialogue fairly quickly. It was for a big demon like Plot that my poetic background had not prepared me at all. What it did do, though, was give me license to do anything I felt like doing. I didn’t know enough to care about ‘how’ a novel was supposed to be structured.

If I knew then what I know now, I probably never would have attempted the same interweave of six characters for my first novel. I was basically learning about fiction as I wrote the book. I think there’s something to be said for that sort of naiveté, though – you aren’t aware of what you can’t do, so you just keep going, whistling in the dark.

What’s funny is that Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion was one of the models I used for Fish, and that he is also a poet as well as novelist.

The novel is clearly concerned with the great variety of voices that each of its characters uses and inhabits. For instance Marie, the Seer, who experiences in each object she touches the impressions left by its previous owners, or Father Leo, the Lover, who sees everything he experiences as a variation on the mantric theme of the fish. Even the epistolary Seeker is affected by his narrative voice, which we experience through his letters. If we think of the narrative voice as a device that allows us to approach something particular in each character’s nature, what were your considerations in choosing their voice – which techniques did you most enjoy, which were the most yielding?

I think of each narrative voice as a melody played by a jazz musician. Soon enough, the musician moves very far from the melody, taking it apart, reassembling it in different ways, but no matter how far out they go they always return to the melody. It grounds the entire performance. So, in the case of Marie, once I wrote the section where she tries on a dress in Casimir’s house for the first time and inhabits the story of the person who previously wore the dress, I knew her melody. I could go anywhere with her and always have something to return to. With Father Leo, whenever I was stuck I would return to his internal fish chant and that would unlock the next sequence.

I didn’t consciously choose those devices, though. These narrative voices, for the most part, appeared in an unconscious way. All but Raoul. His letters are, to a certain extent, an intentional conscious choice meant to fill in any gaps left in Guy and Chiqui’s discussions about illusion.

Marie was the surprise of the book, the easiest to write. She came seemingly out of nowhere, and yet she immediately seemed the most familiar character of all, as if I’d known her all my life. Guy was the hardest, simply because his illusion problem had to be explained without dabbling too much with Buddhist terminology.

Maybe Guy and Marie are my favourites because they are the key to the book for me – Marie’s experience of mystery as ineffable, juxtaposed with Guy’s more negative belief that because everything is impermanent, then all is illusion, and thus pointless.

Your book was taken on by Parthian, the independent Welsh publisher, and published in June 2011. Many people nowadays seem to be of the opinion that the major publishing houses play too safe with their acquisitions of new authors, and are too shy of risking large overheads on first-time writers of literary fiction. Do you feel that the independent scene, at least in the UK, finds itself better placed than the big houses to publish literary fiction?

From what I’ve read since I’ve been in the UK, I think the larger publishers in London are a bit more open than those in New York. Not by much, but there’s still good, interesting literary novelists who slip through into the UK mainstream. Most mid-list literary authors in the States have to find smaller publishers. I’ve also noticed that some small press American novelists are being published by larger houses here. And I mean the very same books.

But, on the whole, it’s been the same story for years in the larger publishing houses – marketing departments are the ones in charge. The decision to take on an author is no longer in the hands of editors. With Fish, three editors in three houses in NY wanted the book but each time their marketing departments said no - because they didn’t know how to market it. Parthian, on the other hand, took the book because they thought it was a good book and should be read. I don’t think their first question was ‘how can we monetize this?’

So yes, the smaller presses are, for the most part, publishing the most interesting work at the moment. But that’s always been the case, especially with writers working in more experimental ways. Since the collapse of the publishing industry in 2008, small presses have become THE place for most novelists to send their work, bringing publishing back to a human scale. You don’t necessarily have to deal with agents and marketing departments to see your work into print. That should lower the blood pressure of a large percentage of writers... it lowered mine.

I enjoyed your dystopian short story The Feed, published in the winter edition of New Welsh Review, out next week. It seemed to share some themes with A Fish... – namely society’s voyeuristic tendencies, and an unending appetite for entertainment and illusion. What do you think are the concerns that most strongly permeate your writing?

The question of what is and is not illusion still permeates my recent work. When dealing with illusion, I’m necessarily also dealing with the question ‘so, what’s reality, then?’ I don’t see it as a tricky, philosophical postmodern question, though. My own understanding of illusion comes somewhat from a Buddhist perspective – that our concepts, expectations, desires, ideas of what life is and how we want it to be, are all blocking us from experiencing what is right there in front of us. So, for me, it’s pretty basic - about finding a true grounding. Discovering what is.

Illusion and Mystery (with a big M) will probably always be a part of anything I write. Illusion (especially the illusions created by the satanic-mill-factory-financial system currently in place) eats us. Mystery feeds us.

Do you think your imminent return to the States will change your writing?

I have a feeling that when I get back to the States I’ll write more about Wales. That’s how it seems to work for me. I wrote about Belgium in California, I’ve written a bit about the South-western US while living in Swansea, and I’ll probably write about south Wales once I get back to the States. It takes a good long while for any experience to alchemize inside my body before it re-surfaces as a story.

Lastly, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s next for Christien Gholson? Another novel, another burst of poetry?

For the past two years I’ve been writing a long poem tentatively entitled Tidal Flats (echoing Buntings’ Briggflatts). The poem’s central focus is Swansea Bay (I’ve basically spent the last two years hanging around the bay). It weaves together the sensual foundations of language, the evolutionary dependence of human cognition on the environment, current climate change catastrophes, and my rage (and sorrow) over the massive wave of extinctions going on throughout the world. The usual.

Hopefully I can get the first draft done by the time I leave Wales – then look at the incredible mess I’ve made and see what’s salvageable. It might end up being quite a bit shorter than it is now. It probably should be. Then maybe someone other than my wife will read it.

As to fiction, I’m working on a group of speculative short stories in the same vein as The Feed (these spec stories take place in the same world as my second novel, a dystopian work called Among the Angels’ Hierarchies). I also just started working on my third novel, but the less said about it the better. I’m superstitious about these things.


The poems in On the Side of the Crow seem to be ekphrastic riffs that stem from

artworks which may or may not be real - pieces such as a 'Collage made from refuse found on a movie theatre floor' or 'Patterns burnt by an atomic flash onto desert stone.' Were these visual pieces starting points or end points?

The beginning image that started the poem didn’t usually end up being the central focus. If you look at “Portrait of Leo’, the one about someone listening in on an arms dealer’s conversation, that started with an image of a blind, albino fish in a cave pool. So - don’t know where they come from, don’t know where they’re going to go...

Can you describe something of movement between visual/kinetic into language that takes place in your poem-making?

I find image rides the language and language rides image. They’re usually


So... what states best trigger these kinds of poems for you - darkness or bright

light? Noise or silence (etc)?

I write the initial lines of most poems outside, so I’m a big proponent of silence (i.e., non-human noise). Most poems I’m interested in weave their way between both noise and silence.

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Next interview coming soon: Matthew Francis

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