Saturday 13 December 2014

Erase the State: Remy Dean on 'Scraps', Twenty Years On…

On the 20th anniversary of his debut novel, Scraps, author Remy Dean talks to Winston Dominic about movies, music, art and finding the time to 'write the wrongs'.

Scraps by Remy Dean - across the decades...
So, it has been twenty years since Scraps was first published… where’s the follow-on novel?

"Arghh! Deadlines! There is one… it’s on the way… I already have scraps of writing that want to become a sequel novel. But I have been writing ever since, working on several projects…"

Fact or fiction?

"Oh, that’s a fact… Since Scraps came out I have had ten books published. That averages out as one every two years – not too bad… but they have been mainly commissions, fact-based books. And I have always been doing a bit of journalism and editorial work."

Your writing background was in journalism?

"I was trained in audio-visual design, which covered film, photography and screen-writing, but my first 'proper' job was writing captions and copy for Design Magazine - the magazine of the old Design Council. From that, it just kept rolling, bits and pieces for national newspapers... that led on to editors coming to me with commissions, which is quite a privileged position to be in for any writer. But I do love fiction - that’s where I find the joy. I have been writing stories since before I was a teenager and will continue to do so… no one can stop me!"

The Race Glass - three short stories by Remy Dean
The Race Glass came out this year and has a selection of short stories from different periods spanning your career, and there is the recent novelette, Final Bough. How do you think your writing has developed over the two decades since Scraps?

"Slowly… I write whenever I get the chance, but I fall foul of many diversions and distractions, such as the reality of living in a capitalist economy where you have to make a living. I could almost make a living from writing, but only by taking those paid commissions – if you are a serious writer, and a publisher comes to you with a commission, then you really have to say 'yes' – and so I found myself writing about things that I was not really interested in. Sometimes subjects that I wasn't interested in would turn out to be interesting once I started on the research and interviewing people around the theme... like Suede and Celine Dion! The last ‘proper’ commission I was offered was a biography of the Spice Girls... I didn’t progress that project. So to make a living, I became a teacher – I know, ironic – but that is something that does interest me. A more reliable, regular income, as far as any professions go these days, and it is rewarding.

"As for developing… the way I write has changed a lot. I tend to use my writing in different ways. As a teacher, I use words to explain ideas and concepts, this resulted in the book, Evolution of Western Art. I find it comparatively easy to sit down and write fact-based text in a journalistic way. If I just manage the odd half-hour here and there, this is something I can do, research and write about themes in a clear and academic way… or write articles for magazines… or pieces for my blogs. That is text as communication and though I still try to keep it lively and flowing and have a few surprises, it is not that creative. It does hone skills that are of great use when applied to creative writing, such as structure, logic, brevity and clarity. Any writing a writer does, does a writer good!"

Remy Dean in conversation, 1994
(courtesy questing beast books)
So creative writing is more difficult?

"Not really, I don’t find any writing difficult. Except filling-in forms! Creative writing, in my case, needs time to live inside me. The characters need to be able to play things out in my imagination… and creativity works best with an open-ended time scale. In some ways it is more difficult to actually do, yes – to find the time to focus without forcing it, allowing the flow of a story to come naturally with its own language and cadences, but that’s also much more joyous and rewarding, when you become immersed. That’s what I love.

"I could sit down and approach creative writing in the same structured and methodical way as journalism, but then the results would be much more formal and would read more like someone who was fresh out of creative writing class – just like so many authors.

"To write fiction well, I need time to settle into the mind-frame of a particular story, become absorbed in its world and mythos, get to know the characters. Then the story just flows into words. It is much closer to play than work. More like magic than science. It can take me a few days to get going along with that flow, though, so when my mind is constantly occupied with teaching and working and shopping and DIY… Yes, it can become frustrating – just as you reach that stage of being able to flow you have to divert yourself to do something else. But those other things also bring varied experiences and interactions with varied personalities that can only feed your writerly repertoire.

"I mean, there aren't many jobs like teaching in the creative arts - every year I get to interact with a fresh batch of fifty or sixty young, agile minds and talk about concepts and ideas with all these people from different backgrounds, bringing their own viewpoints and ways of speaking... I feel I know the 'YA' readership and want to write something for them. And the joys of parenting are innumerable... I've discovered and re-discovered many books, and telly series, and films, and had experiences that have only improved me as a person and also as a writer. You can't live in an ivory tower, can you.... unless you've got a big tower made of ivory, cocker! I couldn't go with that because I care about conservation... and those Greenpeace guys would be on my case, book sales would plummet... though maybe not in Russia and China,"

Then: Remy Dean in a photoshoot for the press launch of Scraps
(courtesy questing beast books)
So if you wrote Scraps now, would it be a very different book?

"Well... I don’t think I could write Scraps now! Just as, back then, I could not write how I write now. Scraps has a lot of energy and bravery in the prose – I re-read it this year and it still impressed me with its relentless pace and the way it relishes language, uses it in an almost physical, percussive way. It is so flip and punky, yet at the same time there is beauty and poignancy in there.

"Now? Well my experiences as an educator, editor and journalist have focussed my writing skills. I hope that my creative writing has more clarity now – a clarity that enhances rather than diminishes its poetic dimension. I hope I still take the risks…

"I still approach creative writing in a way that is closer to abstract expressionism, perhaps as a painter would use colour, brush strokes and texture, I use rhythm and words. I still pay attention to each conjunction and punctuation, y’know, is that full-stop really necessary? How does that ‘and’ affect the overall rhythm of the paragraph it’s sitting in…

"Aristotle used the term ‘melody’ to describe the flow of a dramatic narrative – I try to write in a way similar to a song-writer composing a piece of music – the length of sentences and syllables of the words sometimes create a form that is independent of their direct literal meaning – like films have mood music that enhance the action. I think my writing has become less staccato and probably less over-demanding of the reader – perhaps more ‘prog’ than ‘punk’ nowadays."

Now: Remy and Barnie, in 2014
So what are you working on now, two decades on?

"A few things, the main one right now is a fantasy story for… I was going to say young adults, but it is for the young, including those adults who can remember being young. It will be set in a parallel world …and there will be fairies!"

I’m guessing something like Martin Miller’s Fairies of New York?

"Maybe it started out in that vein, but it is actually being written with my daughter in mind – she has been the major inspiration behind it. It grew out of an old synopsis I had for a much more adult take on the fairy world, but that story has changed and become much richer and… very different from what it was going to be."

So from 'punk-crime-noir' to fairy tales?

"I always considered Scraps to be a fantasy novel. It has all the elements of a fairy tale. It is a fairy tale. A very violent and morally challenging fairy story."

But Scraps is certainly not a book for children!

"No, definitely not! It is aimed at adults. Nouveau adults, I suppose – I wrote it in my twenties…"

There is some pretty strong stuff in it. It caused a bit of stir, mainly because of its sexual content, some of which is not quite ‘PC’…

"Well, thank you. That was intentional. I find it – not surprising, in this society, but strange that people fixated on the sex scenes so much. Its core theme is morality, the morality that is given to a person from parents, peers, priest, bosses and so on and also the core morality that is their own, that develops from their own experience and thinking and heart… personal morality.

"There was a tendency to equate sexuality and sexual practices with morality. To have ‘loose morals’ used to mean expressing sexual freedom, or ‘sleeping around’. Not so long ago, even in this country, it was illegal and considered morally wrong to be homosexual – as if love was immoral and always, exclusively, linked to sexuality!

"I was interested in sex, as many people are! My favourite comment about Scraps came from Lydia Lunch – one of my most favourite authors and critics – when she said, ‘the sex was hot’. That was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer, especially coming from her – a great writer, a generous, positive force, full of energy…

"Yes, some people were shocked by the few pages that dealt with sex, which I think adds up to about four sides in the entire novel, but they were not openly shocked by the violence and murders, which are equally graphic and I would consider much more morally questionable! Our culture still accepts violence in its media much more readily than sex. It reminds me of what Lenny Bruce said on the subject of censorship – I can’t remember the entire sketch, but he makes a comment about a film that cannot be shown on TV because of nudity and an implied sex act, yet in the afternoon they show the story of Jesus, where there are floggings, infanticide and murder by crucifixion. He says that the censors are worried about the young and impressionable imitating what they see. So, that would mean we don’t want our kids to grow up and procreate, enjoy sex and continue the human race, but we’re fine with them killing babies and nailing people to big crosses…"

So what motivated you to write Scraps?

"I really enjoy writing. I wanted to write a good book... and there were characters in my head that needed their independence. I loved reading good books, but much of the writing in some books, that I really wanted to like, was too slow and flabby – I wanted to write a fast-moving, lively novel, where the violence was visceral and the sex was sensual, shocking or seductive. I wanted it to be… not boring. I hoped that the reader would feel something, get involved, question their own responses… and I wanted to irritate those who irritated me back then, the Mary-Whitehouse-Margaret-Thatcher brigade and their reactionary right-wing cronies.

"Also, I had read a ‘how to’ article about writing and it had a list of five things to avoid in a first novel – no excessive violence, no explicit sex, don’t have a main character with amnesia or a central character who is a writer and don’t try to be ‘experimental’… So I made sure I had all of those things in Scraps!"

Why! Why would you do that?

"The whole mind-set of the book was to buck the norm, question authority, challenge convention… It was sort of Dada. If there’s a wrong, I will write it.

"Also, a bit like the Decadents and the early Modernists. Artists like Cezanne and Matisse deliberately avoided the traditional approach, even if that meant doing something the ‘wrong’ way, going against the accepted colour theory, not using perspective in the usual way, not painting the figures to scale… Art usually reflects culture, but they were trying to change culture."

What were the main influences at the time?

"Music and cinema. In the author’s note to the 10th anniversary edition, I explain the connection with music – the novel has a soundtrack… Six Dead Birds, a song by The Moodists – Dave Graney’s band in the eighties – a huge influence, and that milieu merged with Luc Besson’s film, Subway, Alex Cox’s Repo Man and its soundtrack, a bit of Argento in the set-pieces… The title of a Lydia Lunch track, Motor Oil Shanty, also evoked some of the vibe along with The King of Junk, a song by Virgin Prunes… those were the seeds that sparked my imagination back then – there were many other inspirations, from art and life. I was reading books by authors like Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory, Richard Miller's Snail, Nick Zedd's Bleed...

"I wanted to produce a kind of poetic collage of things that were important to me - books, songs, films, art - that I loved. Do a sort of David Bowie response to the culture I surrounded myself with, that had strongly affected me at that time. Things I have experienced through books and films have had just as profound an effect upon me as actual primary experience...

"Scraps is crammed with references and symbolism - not that it is explicit, and most readers should be totally unaware of that side of the story, but maybe they get the feeling that there is a richness and a poetic depth - 'more than meets the eye'. For example, there is a narrative structure inspired by the journey through the major arkana of the Tarot... and some of the characters partly reference important periods of Art History - Tom's amnesia is the Mediaeval period... Mary is the Renaissance... "

A bit of Quentin Tarrantino?

"Not really. Scraps was written around the same time as Reservoir Dogs was – contemporary with it. Perhaps it was down to the late eighties zeitgeist… I can see parallels with True Romance – which is no bad thing – that was in cinemas around the same time as Scraps was published, so the reviews that compared them were probably helpful in finding an audience for the book. And of course, Pulp Fiction was also released in 1994."

…there was talk about a cinematic adaptation?

"Perhaps some talk, but no one ‘walked the walk’. Not yet. I was coming out of a film background and Scraps reads like a ready-to-go screenplay. I tried to write visually, there’s not much internal dialogue, always more show than tell. I tried to evoke the dianoia - what the characters may be feeling or thinking - by their actions or in a poetic way with what’s going on around them.

"I think Scraps is already a movie, I saw the film in my mind and the text projects it onto the brain screen within the reader. But, of course, I'd love to see it made into a film... in the style of independent French, or Italian, films from the 1970s or 80s..."

You said, in the author’s note for The Race Glass, that Scraps was autobiographical…

"Yes, I say 'a highly stylised form of autobiography – in the same way that dreams are'."

So is any of it from your real life experience?

"None of it and all of it...

"I like what Oscar Wilde said in, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 'An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them'. But when you come down to it, personal experience, or your own interpretations of the experiences of others, is the only material a writer ever has to work with in order to link imagination to the, so called, real world. So all creative work becomes an element of self-portrait.

"The characters are collages of real people, amalgams, elements from different people merged to form one. The locations likewise, ranging from Wigan, Stoke and Blackpool to London, Paris and Rome... The events are exaggerated versions of real experiences and expressions of my responses to them, warped and coloured in different ways to suit the story. The story is as real as a dream – and a dream seems real while it lasts."

Do you have any advice for up-coming writers?

"Read or write whenever you can. Write because you love writing. Respect your writing, even if you're the only one that does! Publication is a nice bonus, but the writing defines the writer. Don't pander, just keep on writing and keep hold of the joy."

Thank you, Remy - long may you dream (and write) on!

- Remy Dean was talking to Winston Dominic

Scraps is available as a direct download e-book and also as a tree-book.

More info and up-dates can be found on the Official Remy Dean Weblog.

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