Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Writing your way out – an interview with Matthew Francis by Paul Cooper

Matthew Francis’ long poem 'Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster' is in the winter issue of New Welsh Review, out now. The sequence is inspired by the writing of Shei Shōnagon, the medieval Japanese courtesan and recorder of The Pillow Book. Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster is the working title of Matthew’s next poetry collection.

Singing a Man to Death, your first collection of short stories, will be published by Cinnamon in April. It is an impressively eclectic collection that weaves together music, myth and history, with dozens of different voices and characters. How do you think a collection that incorporates an assassin in the Fatimid Caliphate, a first-millennium Pope, as well as a journalist floundering to encapsulate the experience of 1970s punk manages to feel so cohesive? Was this your intention?

The stories were written over a long period, so I’m glad you do find them cohesive. Over the last few years, I have become increasingly aware of recurring themes and patterns in my work; they developed without any conscious effort on my part, but it’s been intriguing watching their appearance. With regard to the variety of setting and subject, I have always found it difficult to write the kind of realistic, semi-autobiographical fiction that is a staple for many writers – when I do, I usually find myself getting very self-conscious. I am strongly drawn to historical, or even mythical, settings because I enjoy being taken away from the preoccupations of my everyday life. Of course, good writing always arises from your own concerns, but I hope by transposing them in place or time (or both) I gain some perspective on them that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Having said that, I must admit that some of the stories in the volume are more directly autobiographical. In the title story, the urban folktale of a song that kills the listener was such a far-fetched fantasy theme that it somehow freed me to include some quite personal reminiscences of my undergraduate days. ‘The Lovers’ has fantastic elements, but is set in a school very like the one I went to. ‘The Beehive’ and ‘Sleevenotes’ are about characters very different from me, but incorporate my memories of, respectively, office life and being a somewhat sceptical follower of punk rock in the 1970s.

Isidore Ducasse famously described the inherent beauty of juxtapositions such as ‘a chance encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table’. I felt that you exhibit a talent in your writing for creating surprising and satisfying contrasts between a story or poem’s elements. For instance, the embattled tropical nation of Kuovala in 'Demonland' manages to contain CIA agents, communists and jazz girls, giant blue butterflies, demons and codeless computer programmes within a very tight narrative arc. To what extent do you feel that bringing together the disparate is a guiding principal behind your work?

It probably has something to do with being a poet; metaphor, which asserts the similarity between apparently dissimilar objects, is fundamental to poetry. I remember stumbling upon the technique of narrative juxtaposition in the first story I wrote, ‘American Fugue’. I was writing about an amnesiac American poet who runs away from home and ends up living on a university campus in the Nevada desert. For some reason that wasn’t apparent to me at the time, I made this a very odd university, in which all the students were divided into social groups according to their main interest in life: vegetarianism, religion, Eastern mysticism etc. It just seemed to make the story more interesting to have two unusual and apparently unrelated things going on it. Afterwards I realized that it was saying something about the sometimes chaotic pluralism of postmodern culture. I try not to follow a single line of thought, but let my mind jump tracks every now and then, and see what the result might be.

You have been compared to both Byron and Borges during your career – which of these do you feel more affinity with? In 'American Fugue', Dr. Jespersen contends that ‘life was essentially paradoxical’. Do you consider yourself a surrealist?

Definitely Borges. My eldest brother gave me a copy of Labyrinths for my sixteenth birthday: Borges has been a touchstone for me ever since, and the comparison to him in a review was, for me, the finest compliment my work has received. If there’s a Borgesian element in my fiction, it’s perhaps the determination not to let too much realism get in the way of an interesting idea.

As for Dr Jespersen’s remark, it’s a disguised reminiscence: when I wrote that story (many years ago), I was not long out of psychotherapy myself. It was a very unhappy time in my life, and the comic confusion of the nameless narrator reflects my own more distressing confusion. During my therapy, I was taught the technique of ‘paradoxical intention’, where the patient deliberately tries to bring on unpleasant symptoms as a way of preventing them. It seemed to epitomise the upside-down world I was experiencing at the time, and which my narrator also experiences.

And regarding surrealism, I find the idea of it liberating, the practice usually disappointing (in literature, anyway – I admire surrealist painting and am a huge fan of the films of Luis Buñuel). Just as I don’t want to be too trammelled by realism, so I don’t want to escape from it altogether. A related question would be whether I consider myself a fantasy author. As a matter of fact, I am now, for the first time, experimenting with fantasy fiction in a novel I’ve just begun. Up to now I’ve only flirted with departures from the physically possible. In ‘Singing a Man to Death’ the magical powers of the song are only hinted at, never confirmed, in ‘The Vegetable Lamb’ the mythical object of the heroine’s quest never quite appears, and so on. I suppose being bitten by a butterfly (as in ‘Demonland’) is impossible, come to think of it, but it’s a minor detail so it hardly counts.

Your background in the computer industry obviously influenced your 1989 novel WHOM, in which a gigantic computer system controls the White House, and stories such as 'Demonland', in which demons are apparently manifest in lines of computer code. Apart from these examples, do you find that your background in computing has informed your writing as a whole? Have you found any surprising parallels between the process of writing fiction and that of writing software?

For most of my computing career I was a technical author, writing manuals for software systems. It was great training for a writer – you get used to producing large numbers of words quickly and editing your own work and that of your colleagues. In one of my jobs I gave in my notice, and then had to spend a month sitting at my computer in the office with nothing to do, since no one was going to give me a new project at that stage. So I used the opportunity to start work on WHOM. I was never very knowledgeable, just good at translating what I learned from the programmers into a language ordinary people could understand. WHOM is very unsophisticated in its treatment of IT: put it alongside William Gibson’s incredibly prescient treatment in Neuromancer, which came out at about the same time, and you’ll see what I mean. ‘Demonland’ parodies an actual piece of documentation I came across in the course of my work, and draws on anecdotes I had heard about programmers who were assigned to far-flung places. ‘The Beehive’ also uses some of my experiences of that time, including an explanation of how to make breakfast using the principles of project management!

It’s interesting you mention Gibson: I find dreaming to be a strong recurrent theme in your writing, as in his. In the millenarian 'Between the Walls', one of the stories in Singing..., you call dreams ‘the medium by which God communicates with those of us who are not ready for the ulcers and the haloes’ of sainthood. Do you consciously make dreams a concern of your work? Are the processes of writing and dreaming essentially similar?

I am fascinated by dreams and the way they act as a counterpoint to our waking lives. They’re a wonderful source of imaginative energy, but at the same time I find it very difficult to draw on them directly – just as I also find it difficult, as I mentioned before, to dispense with the laws of reality in my writing. Tell people about your dreams, and they just switch off: it’s the same, most of the time, with writing about them. Some of my favourite works of fiction are those that have overcome this problem: Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare and Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon are two extraordinary and underrated contemporary novels dealing with dreams, and an older and even finer example is Jan Potocki’s early nineteenth-century masterpiece The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I have written about dreams in my poetry, which is perhaps a more appropriate form for them – poetry could be described as a dreamlike use of language. But I’ve never really managed it in fiction.

Your next novel, tipped to be set in the seventeenth century, and moving between London and Wales, seems to continue many of the themes that have concerned your previous work. Do you feel this is true, or will it be a break from what has gone before? Is it going to be a set of seemingly unrelated stories, like WHOM, or have you set your sights on a more traditional narrative structure?

The novel, which still hasn’t found a publisher, is called The Book of the Needle. It’s based on the life of a real man, the seventeenth-century Welsh tailor and prophet Arise Evans. In some ways, Evans resembles the narrator of my 2008 poetic sequence Mandeville. Both are men with a very clear personal view of the world, and in both cases it’s difficult for the reader to know how far to believe them. Questions of belief seem more and more important in the contemporary world. We haven’t, as some of us expected when I was much younger, moved beyond faith: rather we have a world of multiple faiths, constantly conflicting with each other. Mandeville and Evans, unlike me, are both very religious people, and each, in his own way, is a visionary. Ultimately the reader is not going to accept those visions, and the way they come into conflict with reality is sometimes a source of comedy. At the same time, I hope the visions are a richly imaginative experience even when you don’t share the narrator’s faith that inspired them.

Best of luck finding a publisher - I look forward to reading it! Your next collection of poetry, a section of which is published in New Welsh Review under the provisional title 'Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster' finds its setting in medieval Japan, and recent poems have spanned seventeenth-century Muscovy and even a voyage to the moon. What compels you to travel so far in the scope of your work, and occasionally to move so far back in time?

All the three of the poems you mention have literary sources. ‘Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster’ is based on The Pillow Book by the tenth-century Japanese courtesan Sei Shōnagon, ‘Muscovy’ on a journey to Russia undertaken by the poet Andrew Marvell and described in a book by one of his travelling companions, and ‘The Man in the Moon’ draws on a piece of early modern science fiction by the seventeenth-century bishop Francis Godwin. I am increasingly fascinated by the technical and imaginative challenges involved in adapting material like this; Mandeville and The Book of the Needle are other examples. My first few stories were all set in foreign countries that I hadn’t even visited, and at one time I thought I was incapable of writing a story set in the UK! Just as I feel the urge to look outside my own life for my subject matter, so I often like to start from someone else’s words rather than my own. Writers have always done this, of course – Shakespeare hardly wrote an original plot. In the poetry world, there has been a vogue for adaptations of classic material recently. I’m currently reading Alice Oswald’s Memorial, the latest of many recent poetic adaptations of Homer. I prefer not to use sources that everyone is familiar with, though – digging out obscure but fascinating texts like the writings of Arise Evans or that account of Marvell’s trip to Russia is one of my great pleasures, and I see it as an important part of my creative process.

In Familiar Spirit, one of your recent poems, you celebrate the ‘downbeat, doorstepping rhythms’ of Welsh speech. I even thought (though this might be stretching too far) that the ‘salad of trees’ line in your poem 'The Man in the Moon' bore more than a passing phonological resemblance to the famous ‘cellar door’ analogy that Tolkien used to praise the Welsh language. As a writer in English, what is your attitude towards the Welsh language, and how has living in Wales sculpted your voice?

I’ve lived in Wales for twelve years, the last eight of them in a Welsh-speaking area on the west coast [Llanon, near Aberaeron]. I hear Welsh spoken around me every day. I still hope one day to learn the language myself, but at present, I’m afraid, I only know a few common words and phrases, plus the meanings of place-names etc. One of the effects of hearing a ‘foreign’ language spoken regularly is that it dissolves the spurious layer of normality that clings most of the time to one’s native language. Carol Rumens describes this brilliantly in one of her poems: on coming back to England from France she hears people speaking English and finds the sounds strange: ‘a language lumpy as a ploughed field’. Living in Wales has probably not made me any less English (though I am flattered when, occasionally, I read descriptions of myself as ‘a Welsh poet’), but it’s put my Englishness in context, as well as giving me glimpses into a rich culture that, as yet, I barely understand. The earliest piece of mine which draws on my Welsh experience is the title poem of my 2001 collection Dragons, in which I tried, without being too obvious, to draw on the rhythms of South-Walian English. I also think there’s something very ‘Valleys’ about the gentle irony with which it spoofs the ubiquity of that mythic Welsh symbol. There’s a lot of Welsh material in The Book of the Needle, and in some of my recent poems, but none in the stories. Some were written before I came to Wales, but of those that came after, two have what I call a disguised Welsh setting. ‘The Vegetable Lamb’ is set in a fictional Tartary, and ‘Assassin’ in the Middle-East, but those landscapes are really based on Wales. I walk in the countryside as often as I can, and feel privileged to live in such a beautiful place.

In the eponymous ‘Singing a Man to Death’, a mysterious song is believed to kill any man who hears it a certain number of times. Similarly, in ‘The Lovers’, ‘Read a certain word on a certain page and the succubus slips in through your eye into your brain.’ Words, literature and music seem to become weaponised in your work. Are they potentially dangerous things?

Certainly powerful things. And dangerous, not usually when used by artists, but by demagogues, whether religious or political. That’s a theme in both my novels, but in the stories it’s hinted at rather than explored in detail.

One of my favourite lines in the poem ‘Muscovy’ is: ‘He wrote us so far. Now he must write our way out.’ Is your work a process of ‘writing your way out’?

‘He’, in this context, is Andrew Marvell, one of my favourite poets. And the line alludes, once again, to the theme of language as an instrument of imaginative power. Most of my main characters are writers of one kind or another, in addition to their roles of traveller, courtesan, prophet or whatever else. So for all the wide-ranging interests of my work, much of the time I’m looking at the reflection in a variety of distorting mirrors of this bizarre thing I’m doing: writing.

Paul Cooper is currently an intern at New Welsh Review and will take up his MA in Creative Writing at UEA next September.

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Next on blog: review by Gwen Davies of the new Dylan Thomas prizewinner, The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell

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