Thursday 12 March 2015

That interview with Malcolm Pryce

... but which title should we go with? 

'Aberystwyth Now' / 'The King of Aberystwyth' / 'Aber’s Greatest Hits'... 

In this  revealing, entertaining and exclusive interview for The Scrawl, Malcolm Pryce, author of the six Louie Knight novels to date - aka The Aberystwyth Books - talks with Jane Williams about how he writes such inventive and surprising stories... about how he has made the Welsh Seaside Noir genre his own... about ice cream, hearing voices, and being - certainly not 'bonkers', but perhaps - 'crackers'?

Malcolm Pryce - the 'Welsh Wizard of seaside-noir-meta-fiction... 
Did you really start writing the Aberystwyth books because you heard a disembodied voice tell you to? Because I believed it!

The disembodied voice helped give shape to a project that had been gestating for a while. I was staying with a girl in the Philippines, in a place so remote the Lonely Planet warned you not to go there. I didn’t realise this until later.

She lived in a stone-age village without electricity or running water, or even glass windows, and while we were there, a cyclone arrived, forcing us to remain for a week or so. News spread that there was an ‘Amerikano’ in the village and for the next few days groups of people from far and wide would arrive to stare at me. First they would hand over a present consisting of a cream cracker wrapped in newspaper. It’s quite hard eating cream crackers without butter or cheese, but of course since it’s a gift you have to do it. Then they would stare at me for hours on end, the monotony broken only when another group from even further afield would turn up with some more cream crackers. Being stared at in this fashion is what is known as White Torture, or no-touch-torture, devised by the Communist Chinese interrogators during the Korean War. It can break a man within hours and leave him in state of total spiritual collapse. I don’t think the Koreans used cream crackers though. That was the bit that broke my spirit and awoke the disembodied voice, the one that said the talismanic words, ‘It’s Aberystwyth Jim, but not as we know it.’ Sometimes I wonder if the Philippinos were really coming because they had heard there was a white man in the village who could eat dry cream crackers.

Do people - Welsh ones, or ‘foreigners’ - really take offence at how you talk about Aberystwyth… Because I for one think that your local references and colloquialisms are absolutely genius. One of my favourite examples of this is from your first book the reference you make to ‘Ffestiniog Chardonnay’. I think that you have to be a local to realise how funny that joke is. Oh, and also the quote about how, “Mrs Pugh from Ynyslas had once famously had a rent rebate because the bells (of Cantref y Gwaelod) had kept her awake all night” - there are a few ‘old dears’ that I know who would actually think that was a great idea.

If anything, I think that I can read a great deal of love and understanding about Welsh society, history and the strange characters (weirdos) that live here (I am including myself as one of the weirdos).

Apart from famously being arrested for sedition by the Mayor of Aberystwyth, I haven’t really been confronted by angry critics, not been confronted by any stone-throwing mobs or anything. You are quite right, the books are part love poem to Aberystwyth and homage to the lost ‘craptasticness’ of the British seaside holiday. They are not piss-takes at all in my view, there would be little point wasting the precious few years we get on this earth doing something that was nothing more than that. Instead, the characters, though they live in an absurd universe, are real, with real beating feeling hearts. Just like us. They take the world seriously and that gives it, in my view, a genuine emotional core.

Did where you wrote the books have an effect on your stories or plot lines?

Only in the limited sense that actually being in Aberystwyth is inimical to the task of writing about the place because it gets in the way. Clearly my version is a parallel universe version that attaches to the real one at various geographical locations like the Pier, or the famous Stryd-y-Popty, but floats free of it in other respects. The real one is a bit drab really and it is better to consult the version lying in the ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, which I think is more faithful to the spirit - if not reality - of Aberystwyth.

...a 'love poem' to Aberystwyth
I think it was Hemingway who said you can only write about a place after you have left it. Draft one of Aberystwyth Mon Amour really was written on a cargo ship bound for South America (I was a fare paying passenger, one of three), and the rest were written in Bangkok, where I lived for seven years and scrivened from dawn to dusk, tirelessly chronicling the moral turpitude of the people of Aberystwyth.

If I was an A Level English teacher (the aspirational musings of a dyslexic potter), I would ask my class about possible recurrent themes within your books. The main themes that I have picked up on is ‘identity’ and self-reinvention.

Discus (tee hee) Discuss...

To be honest, I’m probably not the person best placed to answer questions like this. Some time ago now, I started getting emails from students at Cardiff university asking similar sorts of questions. It seemed there was a course on detective fiction being run there and my books were on it. I was quite surprised to discover this but, having always longed for an academic qualification after my name, I decided to enrol on the course incognito, thinking it should be fairly easy to get a qualification for expertise in my own books. But nothing could have been further from the truth, I did very poorly.
In order not to arouse suspicion I was quite hostile in my criticism of Malcolm Pryce, I called him ‘an unoriginal jejune chancer’. This made me deeply unpopular among the other students on the course because, of course, Malcolm Pryce was some sort of god for these kids. They said, ‘You wouldn’t say that if Malcolm Pryce was here now!’ It was a very lonely time. How I longed to tell them who I was!

I remember describing in one essay how Malcolm Pryce had developed a taste very early on for jam and cheese sandwiches and his grandparents, on seeing this, had taken him aside and pointed vaguely west saying, ‘Yonder is a great town called Aberystwyth where the people eat jam and cheese sandwiches all day.’ Later, when he went to live there his heart was broken to discover they had lied, so this provided the theme of betrayal that runs through his work. Or so I thought. But the tutor told me my theory was a silly fabrication. The irony is, it’s actually true.

How do you write your books? Does it involve lengthy planning and mapping out? Do you use sticky labels with words like aliens, ventriloquists, stovepipe hats, what the butler saw ‘snuff’ movies, Patagonia, vampires… Where do your stories and plot lines start? Oh, and how do you keep them ‘tame’ - not ‘tame’ as in passive and easy, but tame as in not running around in the jungle covered in your own scat and howling at the moon, people fleeing in horror, tame.

I think it was Flaubert, or someone like that, who said you should be neat and ordered in your daily life so you can be bonkers in  your work - I’m quoting from memory. I subscribe to that view. There is no madness visible at all in my working method. I don’t scribble things on notes and stick them on the fridge. I don’t mutter to myself. I wash. Igor doesn’t turn up at 3 a.m. with a plate of bread and water, saying. ‘You must eat, Doktor!’ I just sit and ponder for months on end, write down notes but never have to refer to them again. The act of writing them down somehow fixes them in the memory. During the course of the ‘thinking up’ stage, a world develops. Then one day, like a mariner too long from the sea, I will wake up and know it is time to go down to 'the harbour’… and start the real writing. That takes about six months.

I write about five or six drafts and throw away about seventy percent of the early ones. People wouldn’t believe how much manual toil is involved. It’s like moving a beach with a spoon. But it’s all quite calm. I like the idea that by closing the laptop lid it all disappears for the night like toys put back in the cupboard. In Bangkok, once, I did put index cards on the wall, and I was quite taken aback at how subliminally disturbing this turned out to be, after I had ‘switched off’ for the day.  I was living in a studio apartment - so living and writing in the same space, but even though I did not look at the cards, they had an insistent presence that bugged me. I’m pretty sure the reason is, even when you stop writing for the day, your unconscious is still at work on the project and it resents the intrusion, it needs time to do its work in peace.

The Aberystwyth adventures of Louie Knight continue...
As a quick explanation: my nickname was ‘Calamity’ when I was a little girl, because I loved Doris Day, I was a flamin’ liability, oh and my name is Jane. So, how did you decide on the characters of Louie Knight and Calamity Jane - was it THAT voice again?

I didn't decide on anything, I just wrote and it all emerged, like a face in an old-fashioned photographic developing bath -I know that image is no longer current, but I can’t think of a better one. I never sit down and create characters the way all the books on creative writing say you are supposed to: I don’t fill out lengthy forms answering specific biographical details. I couldn't tell you what any of my characters were doing on their fifth birthday. They usually emerge from the dialogue, as soon as they start talking they either become someone or nothing happens and they don’t get invited back.

When Louie went to the Pier at the start of Aberystwyth Mon Amour, I am pretty certain I had no idea who he was going to meet there, but he met Calamity and the dialogue between them just happened, and in the process he acquired a sidekick, but it was never planned or intended. It’s all like that. If anything, I don’t create characters, I grow them. How such a thing can happen is a mystery but I am comfortable with it being a mystery.

Talking is a mystery too – no one can explain how it can be possible to hold an intelligent conversation in real time, on the fly, without preparation or premeditation. It’s amazing, even very stupid people can do it. If you ever stop to wonder about that it is baffling. Where do the words come from? Clearly there is a team of homunculi inside the brain choosing the right ones, but how do they know what to say? To see just how beautiful the mystery is, consider this. I recently noticed something about Marty, Louie’s schoolmate with TB, who, as you know, had the note from his Ma rejected and was sent off to die on a cross-country run in a blizzard. I noticed last week, 15 years after I wrote the first book, that if you add the letter ‘R’ to his name you get martyr. And that, of course, is quite clearly his symbolic function in the books. I know for sure that I did not choose the name with that in mind, in fact I have occasionally wondered what made me choose that name. Why Marty and not, say, Martin?  I don’t believe for one second it is accidental. It’s the homunculi. You have to hand it to them.

Are any of your characters, other than Herod Jenkins, based on real people that you know?

No, except, of course, Louie is me…

Are you this funny - book funny - in real life? Please try not to disappoint me, she says, oh and answer honestly, you can ‘call a friend’.

I was going to answer this with a true story about a man who found my humour so wearisome he tried to maroon me on the Pacific atoll of Suvarow, but then I thought, ‘See! That’s exactly what comedy is about, you are using it as a device to avoid the painful truths of this world’.

So here’s the serious answer: On a good day, probably yes, but the days are not always good, are they? In fact, I have spent a good many of them in the past seven years in the arms of that savage god known anaemically as depression - we really need a better name, like ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death Syndrome’.

This seems to be a very common experience of people who write funny things. Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to them. There are various neurological explanations for this: the similarity between creativity, comedy and, well, madness. But you don’t really have to go that far, you just need to cast a dispassionate glance at the universe. As the old Yiddish saying goes, ‘if God lived on Earth they would break his windows’.

How much time did you spend researching your six books?

None whatsoever, I just make everything up. It’s quicker and safer because you can’t get it wrong.

You have broadened my knowledge of Wales - I thought that you were making Hughesovka up. I knew a little about Patagonia and the Welsh connection, but I had no idea how seriously this ‘Welsh Promised Land’ was taken. Also, all of your classical allusions boggle my brain - it’s all Greek to me, boom boom! Were you born with this stuff in your head or have you a team of researchers helping you out?

I think over the years I have read very eclectically, and stored a lot of strange material in the rag-and-bone shop of my heart. The team of homunculi who work there have a very good retrieval system. If I read something on prairie voles seven years ago and it would be useful they automatically retrieve it. I think that is the essence of creativity.

Have we seen the last of Aberystwyth from you? …and if not do you envisage Louie’s adventures coming to a climactic conclusion?

No definitely not, I have some good ideas in the pipeline, and have no intention to end the series. Nor will I do anything dramatic and climactic with the characters. It would feel like a cheap trick and a sort of betrayal. I’m quite fond of them and, in a sense, have the power to halt time for them, so they can live on in a permanent state of reasonable contentment.

Why doesn't Louie ‘get the girl?’

Because, like his creator, he dedicates his life to a higher calling; he is a knight in (tarnished) armour for the secular age. All private detectives fulfil this function. They sacrifice themselves for the common good and must, alas, forego the comforts of the hearth.  Marlowe never gets the girl. Nor does Rick in Casablanca. It’s the paradigm. I didn’t realise this when I began writing the series, but it quickly became instinctively evident to me. It means that poor old Myfanwy always has things going wrong for her. I think she’s in a sanatorium in Switzerland at the moment, having lost her singing voice.

...and finally. do you like ice cream?

I’m not nuts about it, it’s just OK. I used to resent the way adults automatically expected me as a kid to be crazy about it and willing to be bribed by its promise. But, of course, in my books the ice cream dispensed by Sospan is not really ice cream, it’s the Sacrament.

- Thank you Mr Malcolm Pryce!

Malcolm Pryce was talking with Jane Williams

You can learn more about the six Aberystwth novels, so far, at the official Malcolm Pryce website.

Go to the Malcolm Pryce author page at amazon to read reviews and purchase his books, including:

the new book by Malcolm Pryce - published today!

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