SR: Every novel starts with an idea. What was it that inspired the idea for Literature®?
GS: It started with a fragment of writing that had been lying around for a while. The guided tour scenes of the first two chapters were originally written as a monologue – there was only Murphy’s words, nothing more. No other characters, no setting, no context. Actually, not even Murphy, since the narrator was anonymous and disembodied. It was an extended joke and a somewhat bitter one, that had arisen from my experiences trying to earn a crust through ‘content provision’.
SR: What is the one thing you hope every person who reads Literature® has thought about or realized by the end of the story?
GS: One of the pieces of feedback I’ve had repeated and which I’m most pleased with is that the story allows a reader to come away with their own take. That’s exactly the way I’d like to leave it.
SR: This novel struck me as very timely, for a number of reasons. On the one hand, you’re talking about how art is being commercialized and the dangers of limiting creativity and originality. On the other hand, there’s this clear commentary about the system controlling what people have access to so that they can control their thinking and behavior. Is the book more shades of Fahrenheit 451 to you or 1984?
GS: Though both of these books are quite rightly mentioned whenever people look to make comparisons with Literature®, neither were on my mind at any stage of the writing of it. Something that I hope is distinct about Literature® is that dystopian developments have been commercial in nature, not political. Nobody has voted their way into trouble, or been deprived of a vote in order to end up in trouble. They have shopped their way there.
SR: How much do current world events influence your writing?
GS: Selectively. If something resonates, I can hardly help but manifest the concern in what I write. The ‘fake news’ phenomenon and the atomisation of truth are of central interest to me.
SR: You wrote this as a novella and kept it streamlined. Were you ever tempted to make it longer or did you always feel the novella length worked best?
GS: I think it could have been lengthened. A sub plot. Something with the lady from the Standard, or Billy’s colleague who disappears. But by the time anything like that was suggested to me I had finished and moved on to the next thing. Writing a novella is one of the least commercial decisions you can make of course, but it is what it is. I didn’t want to force it to be something else.
SR: In terms of genre, this work has been described as ‘dystopian sci fi noir.’ It is definitely a work that defies clear genre classifications. Was that one of the reasons that you chose to self publish?
GS: The opposite, actually. My other work defies even such description as the above. ‘Sui generis’ is the best I’ve been able to come up with. I think if it’s ever to stand a chance, it will need the validation of having been curated by a press. With Literature®, at least I could invoke such descriptors as ‘sci fi’ and ‘noir’. Genre tags like that are non-negotiable, it seems, if you want to push your work online, through Amazon for example, which is what most self-publishers need to do.
SR: In terms of the sci fi aspect of the work, you avoid getting too heavily into the technology. Is that because you didn’t want the reader to lose focus on the bigger message?
GS: The tech doesn’t matter to me. I go back a long way with sci fi but I’m no hard sci fi aficionado. Yes, it’s all about the ‘why’, not the ‘how’.
SR: Okay, I have to ask. Were you trying to prove that a novel can have a blistering pace and be written as a relentless noir thriller and still be insightful and have layers of meaning and symbolism? If so, why?
GS: Great question. I don’t think I was trying to prove it from the outset, in the sense that it was the project. But, as I said in response to your first question, the origin of the book was a fragment of writing that was very much a non-narrative think piece. Maybe for that reason, it died on me. What liberated me was letting go of the obligation to pursue the ideas directly and instead, now that I was in the space delineated by them, just make a story happen there. The rest followed.
SR: Out of curiosity, how many discussions about what noir is did you read before publishing Literature®?
GS: Confession: when I use the word noir I really mean to say classic noir, by which I really mean classic hardboiled noir fiction, by which I really mean Raymond Chandler. More than to anyone else, my book is a homage to him.
SR: How do you define noir?
GS: By invoking the name Raymond Chandler. And, if pushed, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett etc.
SR: What’s one thing about Billy Stringer that you relate to?
GS: He doesn’t have the big picture.
SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?I don’t have a clear memory here.
GS: I would have to mention Lord of the Rings as probably the biggest book that I fell deepest into at a young age. I don’t think I was even a teenager yet. So that would have been my first experience of ‘another world’ if you like. But I’ve never wanted to write like that, for whatever reason. Other books that hit big early on would have been The Pickwick Papers, reams of pulp SFF, Ursula LeGuin, The Trial and a little later on at high school, people like Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme, Italo Calvino, Richard Brautigan.
SR: This book really goes at a blistering pace and stays focused on the core story. If it indulged more of Billy’s interests, what kind of music would he be listening to? Since he’s tech retro, would he be listening to records or tapes? (Please feel free to give a few links to song videos on Youtube that you think would be on Billy’s playlist. Alternatively, if there are songs you could imaging playing at the beginning, end and other key points in the story, introduce them and provide the links.)
GS: Billy would only ever need to listen to Oscar Peterson finding his way round a Jimmy McHugh tune.
The soundtrack for the book should also be American songbook.
SR: Both Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick are referenced in describing Literature. Who are your biggest literary influences and what is it about them that you appreciate?
GS: I think I’ve probably answered that above. With Chandler, for example, I appreciate economy. With Beckett, a different economy. Reading Calvino is the closest you can get to being a child again, hearing a fairy tale. Barthelme is jazz – he has the huevos to take a text in a direction that isn’t narrative at all and the skill and charm to make it OK to go there. Richard Brautigan writes in a way that makes me want to be his pal.
SR: What’s currently on your To Be Read pile?
GS: Dickens’ non-fiction, collected in the volume The Uncommercial Traveller. More Ross MacDonald. I need to go back to the Arabian Nights. The Vorrh. Whatever Jennifer Egan writes next.
(Warning: potential spoilers – do not read unless you’ve read Literature®)
Check out Sandra’s thoughts on Literature®