If you're willing to share a little bit of biographical background that would be super - where you were born, anything about your childhood which might be deemed unusual (eg if you were homeschooled or travelled a lot), what you went on to study and or do by way of paid employment.
I was born in Ashington, near Newcastle, but grew up for the most part in Scotland. I have two brothers, both quite close in age, and I’m the middle one.
My parents lived in Glasgow, and I went to boarding school in Edinburgh at the age of thirteen. It was my idea—I wasn’t “sent”. Oddly, it was Roald Dahl’s horror stories about his education that got me interested in the concept of boarding schools. I was so intrigued by Dahl as a writer and a character it felt like I was following in the man’s (large) footsteps. Funnily enough, I’ve always been drawn to places with fearsome reputations (like Siberia and Saudi Arabia). A friend of mine from school in Glasgow had moved to this particular school himself, and I visited it and liked the look of it.
After high school I spent a year in Japan as an exchange student, then went to York University to study English literature. I didn’t take much interest in the course and spent most of my time putting on plays and acting. I’d started writing a novel in high school but in university theatre took over. I did a bit of writing: jazz lyrics, a poem / narrative for street theatre, some picture book stories.
When I finished I had no idea what I wanted to do. For a year after university I stayed in York, working at Transco and Wine Rack. A friend found out about a drama school in London where you could work during the day and take classes evenings and weekends. I paid for it with a career development loan, took out a graduate loan, and moved to London, transformed into a ticking financial time bomb.
After the course I spent a few years doing relatively little work as an actor, while trying to persuade the banks that I did, in fact, have no money to give them (they ignore this argument). My crowning glory (as far as I was concerned) was in Jonathan Meades' surrealism documentary, as a sort of bit-part actor. I loved Meades, he was hilarious to work with and he has a dazzling intelligence. I played various roles: Prince Philip, an asylum lunatic, odd things like that. If you’re quick-eyed you can see me in suspenders and a corset, blindfolded with an orange in my mouth.
Mostly I did theatre work with friends. I never earned any money and worked in cinemas or as a postman—by my standards a very comfortable existence. The debt collectors began to press harder, but I had no possessions and no way of repaying them. I’d get bizarre phone calls. “Have you ever been to court with a big bank before?” It was all a bit silly.
Being poor in London, though, was a hallucinatory experience, definitely very formative. I started writing an anonymous online diary, a kind of exercise in self-exploration. I used the internet cafes on Tottenham Court Road to post my entries. One day I put up a very early section of my book, and one of the readers, a fellow diarist and American high school student, asked if she could read more. It was one of those moments that drew me out of myself and made me see that perhaps there was something I could make happen, if I chose.
Eventually I just got fed up, I think. I was a good actor, but I was terrible at the job of being an actor, at marketing myself and building relationships. I decided my nature was more disposed to writing, and suddenly there was no reason to stay in London. I started travelling, using teaching as a way to fund it. I spent a year in Slovakia, two years in Siberia, one year or so in Berlin, a year and a half in Saudi Arabia, and three years in Vietnam, with a few interludes back in the UK. My income comes from teaching, not from writing—I certainly don’t expect to able to live off it.
It sounds like writing has always been in your fingertips. When did you first verbalize to yourself that you wanted to be a writer? Can you recall any incidents or supportive people who were pivotal in encouraging you to follow your dreams? A teacher or librarian perhaps, or an experience in a bookshop maybe?
I went through a transition at boarding school, from thinking I was a science-oriented student to realizing I was more interested in literature and the arts.
We did Morrisby tests at some point, a sort of aptitude test. The purpose was to see if our faculties matched our inclinations, which would in theory provide a scientifically-sound guide to our future choices.
The test was quite a lot of fun. The results were broken down into aptitudes such as conceptual / analytical skills and so on. There were all sorts of funny puzzles and mental challenges, and then lots of questions about the sort of job I would like. The results told me I should become a research scientist, a neuroscientist, a mineralogist, things like that. I accepted all this at the time, but I don’t think I took it very seriously.
Meanwhile, other things were going on that the Morrisby test knew nothing about. Early on in my school life at boarding school I was extremely unhappy, and it took me a couple of years to find my identity in the place. This happened thanks to the teachers who ran the school choirs, and the teachers in general, especially those in the English department, and those who put on plays. I became very involved with this side of school life, with the choir and drama, and I think it saved me from a disastrous experience. I was very attached to these teachers, including a history teacher who let me co-direct his plays, and the school chaplain. You could make secret appointments with him by filling out a slip and sliding it into a wooden box. He had a tiny office behind the organ loft. I would go up there and talk about mysterious things like death and God and girls. He never came across as a priest, just as a man who was interested in what I had to say. I always felt incredibly refreshed after our conversations. And there were the usual awakening experiences with literature. I especially remember being amazed by Milton, and Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections, and Bacon’s essays.
The transition was completed thanks to an extraordinary French teacher, a diminutive and terrifying French woman who had total authority over the boys. We were at a social event, and we were talking about A-Level choices. She was entirely dismissive of my uncertainty: “You are not a scientist!” she declared. “You are an artist!”
None of this, though, ever crystallized in my mind into “I want to be a writer” or even “I want to be an actor”. I never pictured myself in adult life. I saw the future more in terms of certain conditions by which I had to live, not in terms of what career I would choose. From quite an early age I was very ascetic. I knew for certain a few things. Chasing wealth was a waste of time. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be famous. The world of ideas was the most important thing, by far. I was very impressed by the ancient injunction to “know thyself”. I was very devoted to all this, and it suited my temperament. All I wanted to do was read, and think. Everything was completely internal.
I had to play along and talk about careers and “the future” with various people, but I never considered any of it in my private thoughts. I suppose the present, to me, was simply too concrete an experience: I couldn’t see past it. When I was about fourteen my history teacher asked us what we wanted to do when we grew up. I said I wanted to live in a small room and live on bread and honey and read lots of books—in other words I had a very naïve, ridiculous sense of what was practical. This inability, or refusal, to consider the practicalities of life persisted long into my twenties. And of course that’s pretty much how I spent them—in small rooms, eating a sharply restricted diet, with nothing but books for company. I wouldn’t go back and undo any of it, though.
The first person who said to me specifically “You should be a writer” was a friend at university. After play rehearsals we all used to go back to a big old house late at night, sit around the fire in armchairs, and eat toast and drink wine. Sooner or later I’d start telling one of the Ruth Manning-Sanders fairy tales I knew, and then we’d all fall asleep. “You should write children’s stories,” she told me. I’d actually been writing secretly for a while, but I never had any sense of “being a writer”: I just did it. For me it seems to be some kind of deep remnant of something from childhood--play, perhaps, or simply wondering--not a concrete ambition or anything to do with “being published”, which is important of course, but not the reason I do it, or started to do it, at all.
What were the first books you fell in love with and why? If you had to pick 8 books to represent your life so far (standing for key moments at various stages, including adulthood), what would they be and why?
A Book of Enchantments and Curses, Ruth Manning-Sanders: I owe a big debt to Manning-Sanders stylistically. Whenever I “hear” fairy tales, I hear them in her voice, with its simple prose, curious repetitions, and sudden declarations like “Not a bit of it!” or “Just you try it!” that give this quality of spoken-ness. I read a lot of this series when I was a kid—they had many at our local library. I used her voice a lot in the Beginning Woods, as well as J M Barrie’s, for some of the omniscient narrator sections—mainly the Wasp Witch / ORPANAB bits. But I added my own little twist of cruelty.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide: I played AD&D when I was a kid. It was introduced to us by a family friend, an older boy. He didn’t live nearby, though, and rarely came round. I always desperately wanted to play this game—I was practically foaming at the mouth to play it. When I got a bit older, at boarding school, I became a Dungeon Master myself. I didn’t plan out a campaign or an adventure like you’re supposed to—I just made it all up as we went along. I noticed it was actually possible to create what appeared to be a deliberate plan, or sense of an unfolding plot, by constantly referring backwards to things that had happened so far. You could end up with the most astonishing “coincidences” and collisions of imagery in this way, simply by thinking backwards, not ahead, and making use of what you had already laid down. It’s a bit like how footballers score goals, by making proper use of opportunities that come their way, and behaving in a way that maximizes these opportunities. I used this method to plot The Beginning Woods, which I also “made up as I went along”. None of those recurring images began with the intention that they would return. When I gave Forbes the job at the grinder, for example, I had no idea of the grinder’s significance: I just wanted to give him a really nasty job. But now the story is finished, it seems Forbes could have been given no other job. If he hadn’t been given that job, then the story would have unfolded very differently.
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie: I co-directed this play with a history teacher. The previous year we’d done A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it was these two plays that really addicted me to theatre as a place of discovery, collaboration, artistic endeavor, and investigation. After university, my first attempt at writing a full-length children’s story was about a boy who strayed into the forest at the bottom of his garden. It was very whimsical, very much under Barrie’s spell.
Paradise Lost IX&X: This book was brought to life for me, and peeled apart intellectually, by my English teacher. I think this was the first time I saw literature being used to directly address philosophical questions such as free-will, and the value of reason over the emotions. It was also the first time language made my spine tingle.
The Caretaker, Harold Pinter: I put this on with two friends at university—I played Aston. I’ve done a few Pinter plays and loved every one of them. Pinter is a master of the comic placement of words. Even simple words like “duck” become rich with enormous comic potential for an actor.
Advices and Queries: I think most moral positions are based on common sense, moderate thinking, tolerance, level-headedness—the Quakers are very good at discovering these and describing them in accurate, close language, setting them out in a non-doctrinaire style for our consideration. Reading them now and again is very refreshing—things aren’t as complicated as they seem. I used to be a Quaker, a member of Friends House Meeting on Euston Road. You have to be attached to a Meeting to be a Quaker, however, and after living away for so long, I was asked if I was going to return. If not, my membership would be cancelled. I was a bit saddened, but I said that was fine. So I was rightly ex-communicated for the very dull Quaker heresy of not being there.
Russian Thinkers, Isaiah Berlin: If I had to choose one book that contributed to my thinking behind The Beginning Woods, it would be this one. I can’t remember much about the reading I was doing at the time, because it was so long ago, but I never forgot The Hedgehog and the Fox. I love essays, and Berlin in particular was a great thinker and a great essayist. What struck me most about his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, was how much could be gleaned, by analysis and association, from a simple line of poetry. You can just keep going on and on, deeper and deeper. The entire story of the Beginning Woods comes from an analysis of the question: Why would somebody Vanish?
A Gentleman from San Francisco and other stories, Ivan Bunin: I think if I could write like anyone, I would write like Ivan Bunin. He just has this marvelous restraint and delicacy of language.
If you were writing a biography of The Beginning Woods, would would it look like? It sounds like it underwent several versions over a long period of time. How did it feel when it was first published? Will you do anything to celebrate its publication in English?
I think it would be a bildungsroman that followed an inept and fairly comical figure through a world he didn’t know how to live in, a Walter Mitty clown, or someone like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin—an idiot.
It went through a simply ridiculous number of revisions, all of them downwards (i.e. smaller and smaller). I have to say, generally, I found that publishers were not at all interested in publishing the sort of story I was interested in writing. Whether this is wise of them or not, I do not know. I do think it’s getting harder to be both a publisher and a writer—that’s to say, to fulfil our non-financial obligations to manage, create and contribute to a vibrant, diverse, energetic culture that is capable of taking risks. Market forces and mass media do not have a wholesome effect on culture, and have to be resisted, in so far as this is possible. But I have no idea if this relates to me or not.
A few random thoughts:
I remember something Pullman said about being glad he didn’t come up with His Dark Materials when he was younger. I often thought about that when I was writing The Beginning Woods. Should I start with something smaller? But it was impossible to set it aside—it came out of the reading and thinking I was doing at the time.
I did have a few fist-punching moments. But they were only moments, and they quickly faded. When it was first published, in Germany, I was in Vietnam, so it didn’t feel especially exciting, partly because I had nobody to celebrate it with. People usually find out I’m a writer, I don’t tell them unless it comes up.
I have mixed feelings about it being published in English, actually the same feelings I had when it was published in German. A lot of people expect a certain type of experience from a fantasy novel, and it isn’t really written along any of those principles. I think it’s more of a bildungsroman. The priorities in writing it were to deal well with self-contained issues such as, “How does Max become who he needs to become?” Not external ones like, “How do I create an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a book?” I read a lot of those books when I was a teenager, but I’m not so interested in writing them myself.
The thing that makes me really happy about writing isn’t getting published—if it was, I would have given up long ago. I just like seeing a story take shape, writing a good sentence, things relating to the craft itself. I don’t want to romanticize it though. Most of the time, writing is a bit boring and unpleasant. I wouldn’t describe it as an enjoyable activity. Writing answers to these questions is much more fun.
Is the version being published by Pushkin Press identical to the version published first in German? Obviously the language is different, but what I'm wondering is whether the experience of having it published in translation gave rise to a desire to edit /re-write any sections?
I think it’s different enough for me to say that the translation is of a book that will now never be published—that has, in a sense, disappeared. This is all thematically extremely pleasing!
I think it’s a general rule that if you ask any writer to sit down with any book three years after they last worked on it, they’ll make changes. Most of it was just general rewriting along standard principles (tightening language and description and so on). There were things that just needed to be done. Information dumps are generally a bad idea, and are a problem especially in books where the hero switches from one familiar world (our world) to an unfamiliar world. The Beginning Woods is one of these stories, and unusually in one of these books, this switch doesn’t happen until halfway through: usually it happens a lot more quickly. This creates problems, because halfway through the story is supposed to be galloping along.
But it was just the shape of the book. I had to invest a lot of time in Max in the familiar world, as the story isn’t really about the Woods or Dragons or anything like that, it’s a story about him (and us). So I made a few changes to eliminate the information dumps, to smooth things over a bit. I just tried to be more clever. I also gave Max more agency, there was too much of him following other people around in the Woods. But the book still “means” the same thing and contains the same ideas.
There are also some significant changes to the ending.
The main thing, I think, that you get from an editor is the gentle pressure to look at the story with fresh eyes, when you’re possibly extremely fed up (I was). After being alone with it for so long, you get a little cognitive shake. It’s not that they say, Do this, or Do that—they actually don’t give you ideas directly. But a good editor can give you a kind of renewed energy, a desire, to re-examine, or look at something from a different angle. I remember I was very nervous when I first FaceTimed the new editor from Pushkin, potentially ready to fight my corner and so on, but when her face appeared on the screen she had this big, friendly smile, and I knew at once it was all going to be OK. We just talked, and it was lovely.
What’s your favorite passage in The Beginning Woods?
I don’t really have a favorite. I read a lot of it through my fingers, there’s still lots I would change if I had the chance. I made over 3,000 changes to the proofs for Pushkin. The scene in the Balloon with Boris?
I have a certain fondness for the passage which only German readers will know, involving Klaus, who was in the story from its inception, and in fact was the soul of the story, who "Vanished" in the rewrite. I had enormous fun with the Wasp Witch. And the early bits about the Mulgans—those bits are the oldest part of the story by some measure. Martha was one of the last people to appear in the story—I am very fond of her, really I think she was the best decision I ever made.
I hate action sequences, fights and so on. Any section where a lot of things are happening quickly, they’re incredibly difficult to write, very technical, and add very little to a story.
I love sentences, and the unfolding of ideas across the paragraph. Baroque writing is fun. So anywhere things slow down, the sentences lengthen, the peculiar narrative voice comes in, those are probably my favorite bits to write. Like Mrs Jeffers in Argand Books, when a certain event happens.
What would your answers be to the Accursed Questions?
When I start teaching a new class I often ask kids to write me letters, as a diagnostic exercise, about anything they fancy. It's extraordinary, sometimes, what they write. But mostly it's about the usual things. Their names. How old they are. Their family. Their home town. What they like to do. How they feel guilty about not helping their parents more, or how much they love their parents. It doesn't matter where I go in the world, these letters are mostly the same. Except in Russia. In Russia, I would receive letters that began with the Accursed Questions. So instead of “Hello, my name is called Luigi, I’m fourteen year old, I like to playing chess but I’m not very good my brother wins me all the time” I got things like, “Hello, my name is Pavlov, I fourteen year old, I not understand life, what it is for, why we here? So strange!” There is something exquisitely Russian about the Accursed Questions. Maybe it's because Russia has always been very susceptible to invasion, both culturally and in geographical terms. Its enduring inability to figure out its relationship with Europe has caused it to constantly ask this question “Who am I?” “What sort of place am I?”, or suppress it, or come up with simplistic answers (though maybe all countries do that).
Anyway, there’s an awful lot to say about these questions, about whether it’s wise or not to ask them, why people ask them, what circumstances force people into asking them when they previously never needed to, if they’re even well-formed questions, or if formulating them at all is a mistake of language, as they conceal the assumption that such a thing as the self exists at all—a self that can be so directly apprehended and analyzed.
What interests me most about them, I suppose, is that hardly anyone asks them, let alone answers them intellectually (which I think isn’t possible). First of all, I don’t think it’s in the nature of people generally to ask large, general, metaphysical questions, and there’s hardly any practical reason, beyond intellectual curiosity, for us to do so. There’s probably an evolutionary principle baked into us that prevents us sitting down and pondering this apparently quite self-indulgent question, “Why am I here?” We’re sensibly much more specific, in our everyday lives at least. Sometimes, it’s true, people do pose them as intellectual problems, and then try to come up with answers. You’re not really asking the Accursed Questions in that situation. You’re just thinking about them externally. You’ve heard about them, and you think, “Well, that’s interesting, it’s true.” This is what Boris means when he says the Accursed Questions like to spread about. But in this case either you will try to create some gigantic philosophical system, or (most likely) you will run into difficulty, quickly give up, decide you can’t be bothered, and go and do something else (which is quite sensible).
Usually when they are asked, genuinely asked, it’s because of some kind of crisis of being. Giving up and doing something else is impossible. You’ve been smashed over the head, knocked off the rails, and you’re just staggering into the trees. You either recover or you don’t. So people don’t ask the Accursed Questions because they’re wise or intellectual or curious or good at philosophy. It’s not an intellectual game divorced from psychological reality. (The questions remember are not the thing itself, they are only verbalizations of a state.) When people ask them, it’s because they have no choice. The question is squeezed out of them by a situation.
It can happen to anyone. Probably you’re less likely to survive if you’re someone like me, a Fox with no belief system in place to carry you through. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are practically immune to the Accursed Questions. The Accursed Questions only occur in the absence of what Hedgehogs possess—irreducible hope; a faith that is blind to the evidence of the senses; an intact, unifying principle. Foxes are more vulnerable.
While writing this I’ve just remembered that scene in The Elephant Man when Frederick Treves’ wife comes down in the middle of the night and finds him sitting in an armchair. Of course, this film is a very moving portrayal of the importance of human dignity, but of the pair, Merrick and Treves, it’s Treves who ends up asking the Accursed Questions, not Merrick—Merrick has too much faith in beauty for that. (He’s a Hedgehog, not an Elephant.)
Anyway, this conversation Treves has with his wife is short but very interesting. She wants to know why he's sitting alone in the drawing room in the dead of night. Odd behavior! He describes why in very plain language, with careful examples. She reassures him, again with concrete examples. In other words he starts out with a question about a situation which he describes in specific terms, and she gives the answers that sensible observation provides: they are doing what they are supposed to in this situation, as two intelligent, rational human beings. But none of it is enough for Treves—he has gone beyond all that, he is in the realm of the Accursed Questions. Finally realizing this, she simply asks what he’s trying to say, and he replies, “Am I a good man, or am I a bad man?” This question is impossible for him to answer. But so too is it impossible for it to remain unanswered. This horrible tension is what gives the Accursed Questions their rather unpleasant je ne sais quoi.
It’s a magnificent piece of acting from Hopkins. When the camera discovers him in the room, you can see a perfect visual of a man who is suffering in the grip of something entirely fundamental and beyond his understanding. He’s sliding into a chasm that goes to the very core of his being, and no matter what he does he cannot escape. It’s an unapproachable part that can’t be accessed by observations and arguments and evidence. The powerful tools of reason and science that he’s employed all his life as a doctor are suddenly useless. Everything his wife has said to him is true. It’s perfectly reasonable and even wise. But it isn’t enough.
The Accursed Questions, when they happen like this, cannot be answered through scientific analysis or the tools of reason. Only something far more powerful can provide resolution—events in actual life. So Merrick is abducted, has a gruesome experience, and when he finally returns after all this horror and falls half-dead into the doctor’s astonished arms, the first thing he says is, “My friend.” And that is the answer Treves needed, and he’s suddenly and unexpectedly at peace. But he could never have come up with that on his own, by thinking about it. His wife could have said to him a thousand times, “But he is your friend, Freddie.” Whether it was true or not is beside the point. It would never have been enough. It needed to happen. Life itself had to provide the answer. And this is what stories deal with that science cannot.
The best example in literature of someone who is in the grip of these questions is Tolstoy, who was essentially annihilated by them, and spent his entire life trying to resolve them with his gargantuan powers of analysis. He wrote entire books attempting to solve them. Levin goes around muttering and thinking a lot in Anna Karenina, but all his thinking comes to nothing, and in fact it’s his implacable reasoning that drives him deeper and deeper into his hole: He’s being killed by what he thinks can save him. The answer is formed in him over time as events build up and his perspective changes—and then suddenly one day the answer (his answer) is just simply there, right in front of him, provided by life (not his powers of analysis).
It’s interesting to compare Dostoevsky with Tolstoy in this respect. Dostoevsky’s characters all seem to be much more insane than Tolstoy’s, perhaps in the grip of Accursed Questions, but they’re not really, they’re troubled by something much more common, I think—just a kind of desperation, or derangement, or imbalance. Some of them are simply personalities crushed by circumstances, ground up in the mill of life. Many of their problems seem resolvable by careful deliberation, social policy, intervention of friends, and so on. It’s clear what a drunkard needs to do (he might not do it, but he certainly knows). It’s clear what will help a man deranged by hunger. And so on.
In this sense Dostoevsky’s characters are far more realistic than Tolstoy’s Levin and Bolkonsky and Pierre—their problems are far more everyday and less aristocratic. We’re all far more likely to end up like Raskolnikov than Levin. All Raskolnikov did was make the common mistake of thinking he was the bees-knees—and the humiliations of poverty forced him one step further. What would have prevented his crime? More soup.
What role do gadgets play in your life? To what extent do you really think there is a divide between science and story? Doesn't great science require great imagination and tell amazing stories (albeit of a different variety)?
There’s an unease with technology at the moment, I think, which is quite interesting because what tech is doing now is in fact quite new, in the sense that something is being done to us (to our brains) for the first time ever, and something doesn’t often happen to us (en masse) for the first time. I think it’s of a quite extraordinary magnitude, because it’s so universal and takes up so much of our waking interactions (including mine—I’m no technophobe). I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I’m sure it’s happening and it’s going to have remarkable, deep, lasting and unexpected effects, some positive, some negative. I do think it’s a bit strange. We are in effect carrying out a very intrusive experiment on our brains, and especially on our children’s brains, one that we would probably never allow to happen, for example, to children in a research laboratory.
However, the story doesn’t deal with those questions, or that kind of technical science at all. Actually it’s about something else, something a bit more fundamental than science or stories, though those do come into it of course. I’ve just chosen them as a convenient source of conflict, though it’s important to stress that the conflict only arises in the story (as in life) because the characters (principally Courtz and Max) make mistakes about what science and stories are for, that lead them to disaster. I don’t think there’s any conflict between science and stories if they’re properly understood. There’s division, but no conflict. They’re just different things that are useful for different reasons.
The conflict in the book is really between two ways of apprehending reality: through a unifying principle that denies complexity (Courtz), or through a more atomized view that accepts it (Boris). (Hedgehogs and foxes again.) Courtz doesn’t actually represent 'science'. Boris is also a scientist, and he couldn’t be more different, so it’s not like it’s Science Baddie vs. Story Goodie.
Anyway, I think the quick answer is an emphatic yes, I do think science and stories are separated by a simply gigantic gulf, and that there is hardly a bigger one I can think of. I think if something is a story, it cannot be science, and science tells no stories whatsoever, has no business telling stories, has no need to, and does not desire to. But neither do stories have any business pretending to be science.
That’s not to say people don’t cheat, and try to present stories as science, or vice versa. Invariably this is for some kind of other agenda, and it has a very corrosive effect on culture when stories and science are manipulated in this way. They are, after all, the only two ways we have of processing and apprehending reality, and they are quite fragile disciplines. They have to be nurtured and regularly cited as aspirations. They have to be core elements of the educational system and public intellectual activity. If you screw with them, or neglect them, you end up with cultural and scientific disaster. Discerning fact becomes a matter of arbitrary selection, based on personal whim rather than careful investigation. When that happens, those in power are gifted an incalculable asset—they’re able to select what is real and what is not, because personal whims are easily manipulated, and people end up believing all kinds of atrocious nonsense. Right apprehension of reality involves self-denial (“What I want to think doesn’t matter—what is it that is true?”). We’re not so good at that these days.
So I think the divide is there, and it’s good that it’s there. There’s this feeling that division between things automatically implies conflict, and that to avoid conflict we must somehow find a way to emphasize what’s similar, what’s the same. The only way you can do this is by not looking at things closely, so we become very bad at analysis and close-description, and sure enough, you end up creating a gigantic gloopy mess. Again, bad for scientific culture and artistic culture.
Having said all this, science and stories do have one important thing in common, and it’s this locus of contact that creates a kind of rivalry between them. They're both modes of description.
Let’s say you decide to prove that Ronaldo is the best footballer, prove it definitively and scientifically. For some people this is a very pressing question, and it is asked and decided each year for the Ballon d’Or, a very important event. Why not make a proper, scientifically sound decision? You might just about be able to do this, if you create a very impressive system of criteria and study all football players everywhere for a very long time. It would take an enormous amount of effort and human resources, but in theory you might be able to do it, and any conclusion would have a kind of majesty that would crush the opinion of the man in the street. It still wouldn’t be science, of course. Along the way, you would have to take a few little unscientific short-cuts. For instance, you’d have to make an arbitrary decision about what a footballer was—perhaps you’d include or exclude schoolchildren and amateurs. You’d have made unscientific value decisions about what made a good goal, or what weight to give goal-scoring in the general run of things. Still, people might call this a "scientific decision" or a "decision based on science".
But maybe your system is a runaway success, and you decide to go one step further and create a system of scientific criteria that would establish, beyond doubt, that football was the best sport of them all. It doesn’t matter what you observed, or for how long, this question is not remotely answerable by scientific method, and no scientist would even attempt to approximate an answer. If they did, not only would they be acting unscientifically, they would be in the realm of madness.
You could, however, very legitimately, without being “in the realm of madness”, write a novel about why football was beyond doubt the best sport of all, and everybody would instantly understand the impulse to write such a novel. People would disagree with your opinion, but that would be part of the point, and this disagreement is even the main point, as it gives life a particular zest and culture a continually generative energy.
Life (everyday, normal life) is absolutely seething with issues that science (and scientific thinking) is powerless to help us with. I think mostly it’s anything to do with culture, everything that wasn’t there before our linguistic faculties came along and started building this alternate mental reality, then externalized it all in elaborate, extended utterances—paintings and stories and religions and so on. And this is important and of interest—that science has very little to say about human culture. Human culture has a kind of resistance to science. This makes sense, really. Because science is science wherever you are. The alien in another galaxy does not possess its own science. But it has its own culture. Your next door neighbors can have their own culture. Your children probably have an utterly different culture.
Imagine you’re Newton and you’re trying to do to the world of culture what you just did so successfully to the physical world—as in, describe it and make predictions about the behavior of bodies. You’d start by applying the scientific method. You’d make observations, which would lead you to a set of predictions, and you’d then test those predictions. When you had enough correct predictions, you could make an attempt at forming a law, which you could submit to further tests. And voila, you’d have understanding (scientific knowledge) which you can then use to manipulate (create technology).
None of this would work. You would discover the world of culture to be highly chaotic and emotionally charged, with no internal structure, governed loosely by highly localized laws that are subject to rapid alteration, defined by contradiction, incoherence and unpredictability, and highly prone to sudden shifts of direction that seem to come from nowhere. Even though you are Newton with your mighty brain, you would be left scratching your head. If you were clever, you would realize there was actually nothing there to scientifically describe. There was only stuff to observe, experience, sense, believe: the stuff of life, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” (That’s to say, it is true that we inhabit a physical world, but culture has nothing to do with physical reality, and therefore nothing to do with science.)
When Courtz talks about ridding the world of stories, he means ridding the world of all this, because it leads to too much conflict and a great deal of misery (and this is certainly true). When he says we’ve never really embraced science, he means we’re still living trapped (to him it’s a trap) in the non-Newtonian world of human culture that science is powerless to describe (a description, in a scientific sense, produces a series of known certainties).
What can describe it? Well, it’s kind of self-referential, because there are only two things that can really describe culture, or get at culture. They are the soul, and more culture. (I don’t mean the soul in the traditional religious sense, I’m using the word simply to describe that part of us, a plastic system of the brain, that apprehends and deals with questions like Who Is The Best Footballer, or Which Country I Liked Living In Best, or What Is The Meaning Of This Weird Painting?)
So when Courtz or Boris talk about science, they’re talking about science as a unifying principle, the way of describing the world that came upon us with Newton and others in the Enlightenment. This is more than just the study of physics or chemistry—it’s a decision about what makes a valid object of enquiry, a problem that has been resolved in favor of the concrete. Towards what are we going to direct our collective gaze? (physical reality) To what end? (to manipulate it for our own purposes) How are we going to interpret the world? (by creating over time an ever-increasing and definitive list of scientific laws that describe all phenomena as exactly as possible), and so on. Making this decision brought about a simply enormous shift in human understanding and actual behavior that had an unprecedented impact on life and human activity. It’s no coincidence it was followed by the rapid acceleration in technical accomplishments that climaxed in the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of divine rights, the death of God, the rise of (supposedly) rationally organized democracies, the computer age, etc. etc. It shows no sign of stopping.
In reaction to all this (there's always a reaction) the novel came along--an assertion of the other half of the matter, or a reassertion. Science decides it can describe the world, novels say hold on, there’s this too, there’s human life.
All this science, after all, has nothing to do with what Dostoevsky was up to. So why is Dostoevsky revered as an interpreter of reality? What reality is he interpreting? How is he doing it? He’s not a scientist. He’s not (mostly) talking about science (he did sometimes). And we don’t need to stick with a specific writer. What’s going on when someone writes a novel generally? Or a poem? Anyone who attempts to approach the world through literature is doing something deeply unscientific.
Anyway, like I said, in the book the real tension is between the Hedgehog and the Fox, between the simple and the complex. Courtz’s “philosophy” is simple and organized around one governing principle. So he’s the hedgehog. Boris’s is more complex—he’s a better scientist than Courtz, because he understands what science is and isn’t for. So he’s the fox, or rather, the Wolf, and he’s all about multiple perspectives—there’s more than one of him. This is all very foxy...
I placed this tension right in the first chapter. Courtz approaches the Vanishings scientifically, even though they wildly contradict everything anyone knows about science. Boris immediately sees that the Vanishings “have nothing to do with science”—they are a disease of existence, the kind of existence that is apprehended through art, in fact the existence that emanates from art—the existence of the human condition, the soul.
The thing about stories (I mean stories in the most general sense) is that unlike science they make no universal claims (they don’t have to). They are the receptacle of complexity. You can’t use them to generate concrete positions—if you feel you’ve managed it, it’s only by confirmation bias, and then you’ve become a hedgehog, like Courtz.
Hedgehogs can be very persuasive if they appeal to a certain overbearing psychological need (Max has no defense against it). They’re not necessarily bad—cultures can be given enormous jolts forward by hedgehogs (Dostoevsky was a hedgehog) and there are of course nice hedgehogs—but they’re quite threatening to established orders. Hedgehogs are often troubling because they’re all about impenetrability, not engaging, not being open to complexity: They don’t care what the other arguments are. They’re thugs, in a sense. Not bullies necessarily. But impervious. Boris’s speech at the end isn’t really anti-science per se, it’s more anti-science-as-a-unifying-principle. But it just bounces off Courtz.
Still, Courtz has made a mistake—this isn’t what science is for (it has “come in where it doesn’t belong”, like Mrs Jeffers under the chandelier, or the boats in bottles). Again, it’s Boris who is the scientist in the story, not Courtz. Courtz is just a zealot, and a rigid thinker. He has one idea: He’s curled into a ball.
What are you currently writing? Where do you go next after such an epic and impressive first novel? What are you working on now? How has/will your move back to Scotland influence your writing, do you think?
Yuri Norsteyn said the most important thing is not to repeat yourself. So I’m doing something completely different, something inspired partly by the example of Chuck D, Janis Joplin and Emily Dickinson.
The move to Scotland probably won’t influence me much. I tend not to get input in that way from locations. I may also be on the road again next year, as I’m only on a sort of sabbatical at the moment. I’ll need to start earning money again, and I miss teaching.
And what are you currently reading?
I’ve been reunited with my library, which has been stowed for years under my Dad’s bed. So I’m reading a few I’ve been meaning to read for years, at the moment If It Die, Gide’s autobiography, and Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, by James Baldwin.
My blog is primarily about the play / activities my family and I get up to inspired by the books we read. What's the last thing you did inspired by a book you read? Perhaps it was a place you travelled to, or a recipe you tried, or a new skill you tried out?
I never actually did this, but I did investigate how to do it, and it would be a lot of fun: making ink. In an early version of the story, Max works for a secret society that preserves literature by tracking down books that escaped the fires, and copying them out by hand. So they have to make a lot of their own ink—you’re only allowed to buy it with a license, and it’s a risky purchase for a secret society. One creature that is closely involved in the production of ink is the wasp. I think this was the first time that wasps entered the story as an idea.
Do you have a writing routine? Favorite locations to write? Longhand? On the computer? With music on? Late into the night or first thing? What's the most helpful thing for you when you're writing? What keeps you from writing?
I don’t really have a routine or any special system. I just sit down and try to do it.
In my twenties I often didn’t have a desk—I just wrote lying on bed, on a laptop. I haven’t written longhand since I was a teenager—I write on Word. For a short time I used to print things out and edit them by hand, but I stopped doing that as printing was too expensive and I often didn’t have space for a printer in my room.
I find it almost impossible to write in the afternoon. It has to be first thing or late at night. The afternoon is for practical stuff, admin, that kind of thing.
Emotional calm is very important for my writing. If there’s any kind of mental upset—forget it.
I find it very useful, while I’m brushing my teeth in the morning, to visualize that I’m about to start writing. I usually start writing about five minutes after I get out of bed.
It’s useful to feel very precise and careful, to say to yourself, I am not doing a big thing, I am doing a series of small things.
I think the things that are most useful for writing are useful for any kind of task completion: Ability to focus, plan, organize, concentrate, etc. I’m not especially good at any of these things, I’m just dogged and bloody-minded.
I sometimes change the font or the layout, this shakes things up a bit.
I am very bad at moving on and coming back to something later. If I get to something that stops me, I will stick at it for days or even weeks until I’ve solved it. It could be something very small, like a way of resolving a problem with a repeated word or sound.
Having travelled a lot, do you also have more than one language? (In bits, if not a stronger handle!)
I’ve been an English language teacher for the last twelve years or so, so I have a very good idea of how languages are taught and learned. But I never learnt them myself. My German is OK, I can have a conversation, just about, but I couldn’t read a newspaper.
It was just too much for me really, teaching a language, then writing (language), and reading (language), and then, on top of that, learning a language? Too much. You spend a lot of time among people as a teacher, and when I finished work I generally wanted to go home and be on my own. I even read a lot less now I’m a teacher, which is sad. It’s just too much language! But being in a classroom is very interesting too.
What are your favorite pieces of language? Individual words, or phrases, quotes or concepts....
God this is a hard one. There are some pieces of poetry that just make my nerves tingle. Gielgud’s recordings of Richard II’s speeches (“Oh that I were a mockery king of snow”—Shakespeare was getting this stuff from the Gods.) Much of Paradise Lost.
Scene most likely to make me cry: The death of Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace.
The most atmospheric writing: Dickens, anywhere.
My favorite short sentence: “And Kutuzov died.” Also in War and Peace. It's all about what comes before it.
My favorite long sentence: Sebald’s Theresienstadt ghetto sentence in Austerlitz. I think it goes on for seven pages, describing the Jews’ entrance to the ghetto, their life in it, and the clearance. It’s like they get swept up by some unstoppable force of history. You never get lost in the sentence, and the full stop when it comes is almost cataclysmic.
Quotes? I’m not so good at remembering quotes, but one comes into my head right now, in Gorky’s My Childhood: “Some people’s destinies are forged by the angels with silver hammers, others by the Devil with the blunt end of an axe.”
I also was mesmerized by the phrase “the forgetting of being” which appears at the beginning of Kundera’s “The Art of the Novel”, and the way this is contained in one German word, seinsvergessenheit.
If you could walk into any storybook world (other than your own), which story (landscape or plot) would you like to find yourself in?
I read a lot of David Eddings and Terry Brooks when I was a kid. Both those worlds (their Belgariad / Shanarra series) were great. There’s even a little tip of the hat to Eddings in the Beginning Woods (a character sneaks in briefly). In his world, I’d quite like to go for a walk in the Vale of Anduin, and perhaps go see Belgarath in his tower. Terry Brooks’ world was also absolutely wonderful, very dark, and the characters suffered horribly, which was great. (Boris I think is an echo in my mind of the Dark Uncle.) I’d like to go have a few words with Allanon in his gloomy lake.
Definitely the most fun storybook plot to be in would be one from Piers Antony’s Incarnation of Immortality series. They’re a lot sexier than Brooks and Eddings, a bit more adult. I’d quite like to be chosen as the new Incarnation of Evil, Death, or Time.